Sorry I’m a bit late posting this, but this article by one of my heroes Michael Pollan appeared in the New York Times a couple of days ago and it put a chunk in my throat that is still stuck there.

It’s a good thing… balance, especially when you’re a pessimist like I am. I got my balance today when I wanted to put some balm on Amie’s poor nose (snotty cold in progress here) and she cried out:

- No, no, only on the tip of my nose, not on my snorkels, not on my noseholes!

Freeze Yer Buns Challenge 2008 (c) Crunchy Chicken

Yes, I’m taking the challenge, probably the most difficult one of all for me, because I’m one of those people who always feels cold. At the bookends of the summer, when other New Englanders are still/already wearing their t-shirts outside, I’ve got my scarf on and a sweater. I am unapologetic about that, but not about turning up the fossil-fuel heat that we are, at the moment, dependent on.

So far we’ve been blessed with mostly good weather (61 degrees and sunny right now), but we had a some cold days a couple of weeks ago and turned on the heat. Having a new boiler installed was one of the first things we did after buying the house, as the old boiler was literally an antique. We wanted to see how and if it works properly. We have forced hot water with cast-iron floorboards and about 1200 square feet to heat (1500 if we also heat the guest zone, but we shut that off). Unfortunately there is no way to turn off any of the radiators, so we can’t close the bedroom doors and just heat our living space.

We had a tough time finding the right settings, but the main problem was me. DH and Amie are “warm” people, walking around in their light sweaters – and even that had to be forced upon Amie. I was dressed for deep winter, had my hands wrapped around a cup of steaming tea most of the time, and I was still shivering. DH set the thermostat to 64 degrees during the day (or almost 18 Celsius, which still makes more sense to me) and I complained, I admit. And though I hated hearing that infernal boiler fire up, I turned it up a couple of times.

But I shouldn’t.

So I pledge 64 during the day and 58 F at night.

(That’s 17.7 and  14.4 C)

 Now I’m going to peruse Crunchy Chicken’s Freeze Yer Buns posts from last year to see how I can make this any easier.

So over the weekend we dug a big pit (8′ x 3′ x 1.5′)  where part of our vegetable garden will be. Tomorrow spells rain, and we didn’t want all that laboriously dug and sifted soil to wash away.

So we decided to immediately apply the “Bomb Proof Mulch” from Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden – a book we heartily recommend, by the way. It’s a recipe for soil-building, but since we already have pretty good soil (except for it being a little clayey) we felt comfortable with adapting it a bit. Hemenway also recommends to leave the existing soil and the vegetation on it be, as it will all decompose and gets better underneath the “mulch”, but as we have so many stones and roots in our soil, we had no choice but to dig and double-dig.

First we drove out to the next town over to get us some straw, with which we proceeded to stuff the car (four bales). I know Amie looks dubious in the picture, but she loved it.

Amie among the straw, October 2008 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

We also got some bags of composted manure – Moo Doo, cheap for $5 a bag (the farmer wanted to get rid of them). It really didn’t smell too bad, but we did get some strange looks from people along the road.

Car with Moo Doo (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

Then we rolled up our sleeves, double-dug the whole pit (loosened the soil at a depth of more than a foot and took out some more stones) and threw in a bag of Moo Doo:

Bomb Proof mulching stage 1 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

Then we stuck most of the sifted soil back in:

Bomb Proof mulching stage 2 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

Then we  heaped on half a wheelbarrow load of a mixture of our homegrown compost (of which we don’t have much yet), green grass clippings and a lot of browns like fall leaves and partially composted wood chips and watered that. The idea is that this nitrogen rich material attracts worms and beetles other decomposers:

Bomb Proof mulching stage 3 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

Next we covered it with a layer of all those cardboard boxes we saved from our move (staples and tape removed) and again soaked that:

Bomb Proof mulching stage 4 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

Then we put on the other half wheelbarrow of the compost, clippings, leaves, and partially composted wood chips. Here the idea is to entice the decomposers who made it to the layer below to eat through and digest (thus compost) the cardboard:

Bomb Proof mulching stage 5 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

Then we put our straw to work, laying down two layers of “books” of straw, soaking again. This is really the “mulch” part of this exercise:

Bomb Proof mulching stage 6 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

Lastly we put the rest of the sifted soil, partially to weigh down the straw (it can get a bit windy up here on our hill) and partly to cover up this now very conspicuous patch, and partly because we still had a little left over.

Bomb Proof mulching stage 7 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

It totally looks like I did nothing, doesn’t it? But I did! Then I had to rush off to Yoga and felt wonderfully invigorated, though I may still have smelt of manure a bit.

Total cost for this patch:

  • 1 bag of Moo Doo = $5
  • 1 straw bale= $8.99
  • about 9 hours of work (two of us, but it included a lot of mucking about with a homemade sieve and some pesky tree roots)

Next weekend we tackle another 8′ x 3′ patch and hopefully as we progress the cost in time  and effort will grow less. Come winter we’ll be able to sit back and dream of all  that mulch working away on our soil.

With regard to the square-foot-gardening, I found a helpful way of planning, recording and keeping track of the crops: check it out here.


This weekend we finally got our asses in gear (that’s the expression, right?) and started to clear more of the to-be-vegetable patch to the side of the house.  Yesterday we cut down whatever overgrown chrismas trees needed removing, mostly using a bowsaw (I really enjoy using a bowsaw; a friend lent us an electric chainsaw and, really, it’s just not the same).

Today we started digging out a 8′x3′x1′  hole and sifting the soil. It took us five hours, the two of us, with some help (and counter help) from Amie. She was very cute with her yellow plastic shovel, filling up a bucket, complaining like we are wont to complain (a bit) and then concluding “You can fill the bucket, Baba!”We now are left with the hole, a big pile of sifted and somewhat clayey soil, and a smaller pile of pebbles, stones, rocks, boulders, and tree roots.

Next up: double dig (stick in a fork and wiggle it around a bit), add the soil amendments (mainly compost, proably our own but I doubt we’ll have any left after this small patch) and fill it back up. Then tackle the next 800 square feet!

I’ll take pictures tomorrow. It’ll be good to have some before-meanwhile-after pictures. I always enjoy those same-angle pictures that gardeners put up on their blogs.

Mel Bartholomew’s new Square Foot Gardening (c) Bartholomew

We’re planning on following Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening method – the old  one, since we have pretty good soil, but I’m going to check out the new book as well (*). I had such fun last week trying to figure out how much land to set aside for potatoes (our main local starch around here).


  • Carla Emory wrote to plant at least 50 lbs per family.
  • 1 lb of potato “seeds” planted yields 10 lbs of harvest.
  • The best seeds or tubers weigh about 2-3 ounces
  • If in the traditional method we assign 3 rows 40′ long and 3′ apart, we’d plant 78 plants at intervals of 18″, which would come to 10-12 lbs of seed, and would yield a harvest  of 100-120 lbs.
  • Using Mel’s method of planting a main crop of 1 seed a square foot, the same area  of 10 X 40 feet would take 400 plants (so 800 ounces or 50 lbs) and yield 500 lbs!

500 lbs. is too much, even for me, for whom potato is the ultimate comfort food. But if on our first try we hit it somewhere in the middle of the traditional yield and “Mel’s yield”  we should be covered.

(*) In his new system Mel “grows up”: he fills his square-foot boxes with “Mel’s Mix” of1/3 vermiculite, 1/3 compost and 1/3 peat moss – so it doesn’t matter what soil you have, or if you have any at all, really.

Amie in the meantime is becoming a good helper around the house as well. She is really good at folding towels and handkerchiefs (yes, we use those: no paper tissues in our house). I can’t wait to show you the drawings she’s been making…

Amie’s pile of folded laundry (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

Amie picking raspberries at Drumlin (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

This Saturday we returned to Drumlin Farm for the Harvest Festival and we had a blast. We danced to the Old Mariners’ Dixieland Jazz – they were in their sixties and seventies and pretty hardcore, apologizing for playing a song so recent as from the thirties! We took a hayride into the fields I remember with such fondness and picked the last of the raspberries.  I was wishing we had that much sunlight in our garden. I would love to have a berry patch like that, for the berries, for sure, but also for the picking, which is just such a mind-clearing and calming activity. We also got some gourds (now curing in our porch) and large as well as small pumpkins, of which Amie painted one.

Amie painting pumpkin at Drumlin, october 2008 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

On Sunday we drove “into the city” (it’s still funny to say it like that) and in between two parties we visited the MIT Museum.

Amie and Kismet, October 2008 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

There Amie got acquainted with the”emotional robot” Kismet (above), the kinetic sculptures of Arthur Ganson, and the ongoing and ever changing exhibition of holograms. Amie was most charmed by Ganson’s Machine with Wishbone and the tiny armchair jumping and bouncing over the cat. But she was most mesmerized by his self-oiling machine, of course, how could she not? All that sleek oil dripping down… Maybe that’s what caused her proclamation, as we headed back out again: “I want to go to a coffee shop!”

(Two entries in one day, for a change!)

Today dawned gray but then the skies cleared up again by noon and by 2 Amie and I and our drawing materials were on our way to Drumlin Farm. In the car we discussed how we love Fall – though Amie avows she loves all the seasons – because of these bright blue blustery skies, the colors in the waving trees, the whirl of falling leaves, and the fresh air.

At the Farm we spent our usual 15 minutes on the observation platform along the Bee Line Trail, waiting for the deer to show themselves. Amie is pretty good at keeping quiet, as long as she has a snack.  Then we saw the first deer, whom we call “Bambi’s mother”, lying in the grass, munching. I drew her in my journal while Amie finished her snack.

Bambi at Drumlin, October 2008 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

Amie was very intrigued by that, so when we spotted “Bambi” (a younger deer, probably also female but never mind), it was her turn to draw from life.

Amie’s drawing of Bambi, Drumlin Farm, October 2008 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

- “Bambi has an extra leg on his back, so he can run, like this” (does funny rolling run).

The addition of grass was her own idea, based on the grass in my drawing. It’s more or less the first time she adds context to a drawing. When I asked her a couple of days ago where Amie was,in the drawing, she said: “Here!” and slapped the page. Where else! Later she reconsidered and said that Amie was in the [living] room but you can’t see the toys because they’re in their boxes.

Speaking of context… Later we sat down at the picnic benches and Amie decided to draw the two boulders and – after standing on them – Amie standing on them. 

Amie’s drawing of two stones with Amie, Drumlin Farm (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

The two dots on Amie’s body are buttons (they started out as eyes but were quickly renamed buttons when she saw that was the body). There are the two boulders (I helped a little with coloring them in), a tree with green, brown and yellow leaves, and the sky. She had some trouble deciding where to draw the sky. Here the context was drawn first and the human figure was added last.

I have a new resolution. Well, it’s not exactly new, but.. uhm… REnew-ed. Yes, that’s it: an old one newly made. In any case, it is to draw something every day, and what better to draw than my little girl who finally will sit still for two minutes at least while she is  drawing something herself. She is always very curious about what I’m doing and what the drawing looks like, so she’ll frequently interrupt what she is doing – and thus what I am doing – to come and sneak a peak. Needless to say I am so rusty that she will be the only one I will allow such a peak, so far!

So invariably she’ll hear me sigh and complain of my drawing, to which she will either respond: “No, Mama, it does look like Amie!” or (more often) “I can do it better! Here, let me do it!” Then the collaborative effect will take place like the amazing drawing I posted yesterday, and this one, today:

Amie and Mama’s drawings of Amie on chair, October 2008 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

That’s Amie’s copy of my drawing: Amie sitting on a chair (which hides her legs, obviously), “doing homework” at Mama’s desk.

I haven’t been blogging much lately. Summer at our burgeoning homestead has meant more time spent outside and in physical activities, like transplanting and planting.

Mama and Amie planting August 2008 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten Amie transplanting, August 2008 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

There hasn’t been as much of planting as I would have wanted: just some herbs in pots and a an edible border by the side of the house (thyme). Mainly we’ve pulled out plants and weeds, moved and sifted through rotten woodpiles, dug up stones and cut down some trees (small ones, with bow saw).

We have mostly cleared the area that will be our vegetable patch next year. I’m afraid I didn’t take the earliest possible “BEFORE” picture of the jungle that was there. I really like the idea of taking pictures of the garden as it changes…

We decided to follow Mel Bartholomew’s “Square Foot Gardening” method. I very much like his engineer’s approach, and a high-yield small-space garden like that also allows us to make optimal use of what little sunlight our shaded garden allows in without having to cut down the beautiful trees. We hope to make the vegetable beds and to start building up that soil at least before the weather deteriorates even more.

What else has happened? We’ve had both sets of grandparents visiting as well as Aunts and other friends. It was real summertime, so much more treasured because we now live in this wel-lit house with this great yard and in this beautiful neighborhood. Those who visited who could make the comparison with our small, dark basement in Brookline were stunned by the difference. Even being sick – yes, of course, the second week of school, and I got it too – is more enjoyable when you can sit on the sofa with the sleeping child on your lap and look out at the trees and the birds…

Now it’s just the three of us again. It’s strange, for me at least, because our first guest arrived a week after we moved in, and we’ve head a constant stream since then. It feels now like I have to make myself “at home” all over again…

We also started the new school year, and of course there has been a lot of drawing, writing, and crafting, but about which in another post!