Sharon – without knowing it, apparently – started  The Competence Project:

“I challenge each of you to pick some area of your skill set that’s kind of weak and strengthen it.  And when you feel like you’ve gotten competent, well, pick a new skill. “

One of my visions for our new place was to have chickens, but then it turns out you need at least an acre before the town will permit any livestock. I mourned this for a couple of months – though I do still plan to pursue it with the town at some later date. (UPDATE Jan 2009: done! We can have chickens!)

Then I realized we consume more honey than eggs (and chicken). So when Sharon challenged me, the first thing I thought of was:


I located a bee school nearby that will have classes this coming February and I will be there.

Think of the honey, and all the yummy foods you can cook with honey! And how the garden will profit!

My town, as far as I know, has nothing in its bylaws and laws about bees. I will consult my neighbors, of course, but all our properties are large enough, I believe, to accomodate a hive or two.


Yesterday our first pumpkin orphan was brought to us! Amie and I were just coming up the street froma beautiful Fall walk/bike (can you believe this weather: it’s 9 November and 60F!) and we saw an elderly man cradling a big pumpkin approach our mailbox. He put it down so gently near the sign we put up. We waved in thanks and he waved back. Another neighbor was just driving by and stopped to chat, saying she loved the idea! I was quite relieved: I wasn’t sure how the initiative would be received.

All the beech leaves are falling now too: of the big trees they’re about the last to release their leaves. Everywhere is littered with so many leaves you can hardly distinguish the street from the drivewaysfrom the gardens. Yesterday I saw, for the first time, the moon from our bedroom window, unobstructed by the thick canopy that  usually surrounds us. It was a magical moment.

Riot for Austerity first with Thermometer

  • Trash

Trying to establish our trash baseline for the Riot was pretty easy. I weiged the garbage as it was being transferred from the small pail under the sink to our boxes outside (handy for taking to the landfill once a month). In one week – and it was a pretty typical week – we produced 3 lbs. of garbage.

That’s 1 lb. of trash a person a week, or 0.15 lb a person a day.

The average American generates about 4.5 lbs of garbage per person, per day. A 90% reduction would mean .45 lbs of garbage so we’re good there.

I’m not writing this to blow my own horn. It’s just a matter of accounting and of showing that while we might sigh over some of the 7 categories for reduction (our weak points are electricity and heating) there are categories where we do well and that give us courage.

Actually, I think our garbage production is nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, it could be less if I also shunned food and things wrapped in un-recyclable plastics. I haven’t been doing nearly enough of that yet.

  • Compost

Composting helps, of course. Imagine dumping all those half-eaten and rotten but still huge and heavy jack-o-lanterns into the garbage bin.  There’s a good ten pounds right there!

Thinking about that while cutting up our own two pumpkins for the compost, I thought of an initiative: tomorrow I will deliver into each of my neighbor’s mailboxes a note asking them not to trash their pumpkins, but to deposit them on our driveway so  we can compost them. Every evening I’ll collect them and cut them up and put them in the bin. Should be fun (seeing all those Halloween designs), neighborly, and productive as well!

I also contacted the nearest Starbucks and asked if we could have their coffee grounds. No problem! I have no idea how much it will be. The first loot is coming in this evening, so we’ll know soon. It doesn’t even cost us anything to pick it up: DH drives past it on his way to and from the shuttle.

Update: DH came home with 30 lbs of coffee grounds!

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

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!

Over a year ago I wrote about our dashed compost dreams. We were still at the condo then and the trustees vetoed the idea of a compost bin. Well, a year later the dream became possible again and we purchased two Earth Machines. Here is one of them, the active one:

Our Earth Machine (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

We followed all the rules but still had a swarm of small black flies to contend with. Yesterday, however, when I turned the pile inside the Machine, steam and heat rose up out of it. The pile is cooking! We are doing it right!

We’re also implementing the simplest of a grey water system. When I rinse fruits and vegetables, I catch the water in the kitchen sink in a tub, and we use that for watering the plants. Amie loves her little yellow watering can.

Our “grey water” system (c) Katiren Vander Straeten

I splurged a bit with a gift card given to us by dear friends as a house warming present. I drove to the garden center in town and purchased:

  1. parsley
  2. cilantro x 2
  3. thyme
  4. rosemary x 2
  5. dill
  6. bay laurel
  7. nana curry plant
  8. genovese basil x 2
  9. mint
  10. oregano
  11. tarragon
  12. sage
  13. marjoram

A month ago we bought a large cherry tomato plant and it is over eight feet high now. We’ll have to use a ladder to harvest the highest fruits! There are lots of fruits on it, but they are as yet all green. We also have a smaller plum tomato plant and 4 belle pepper plants. Can you believe that a little bit over a year ago I had no idea that tomatoes grow out of flowers!

unripe cherry tomatoes (c) Katrien Vander Straeten unripe plum tomatoes (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

It’s not nearly the garden we envision, yet, but it feels so good to have made a start. Who knows, which of the perennials we’ll still be harvesting from in five years’ time?

Amie has taken to gardening. A month ago, after reading Caillou in the Garden, she planted some basil seeds in a pot and made a marker. Then she sat down, and waited. Now the wait is paying off:

Amie waits for the basil to grow (c) Katrien Vander Straeten Amie’s Basil (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

Our woodpile has grown considerably and is no longer wobbly. Probably all this wood won’t be cured well enough by this winter, so we’ll have to buy three extra cords. Forking out the money for them will get us going on the wood stove purchase. We’ll probably get a chimney sweep to check out our chimney and to advise us about a proper stove. We’re very much leaning toward a stand-alone stove, so we can heat tea and stews on it.

Woodpile 16 July 2008 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

And you know what: I made jam! Of the many blueberries I got a the Farmer’s Market. It’s only freezer jam, and amounted to only three jars, but what an accomplishment it was for me! And Amie loves it.

Mama’s Blueberry Jam, July 2008 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

And last but not least, some of the wildlife, right in front of our house. One more reason to include a garden fence in our plans.

Bunny in our garden (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

Photograph of small farm on river bend

We’re moving ourselves and the rest of our stuff this weekend. Then we need to unpack, figure out which boiler and water heater to buy and who should install it. Then insulation. Then select the wood stove (any suggestions? the choice on the market is overwhelming, but we don’t want to go pellets).

And that’s it for the big things in the house. Some will unfortunately have to wait till next year: the solar water heater, for instance.

Then, finally, we’ll be turning our attention to the garden. Those.7 acres – isn’t it lovely, that though you don’t have a whole acre really, you still get to say point-seven-acres?

As I look at all that outdoor space, my big vision is looking too, over my shoulder. And I keep telling myself: keep the dream big, but take manageable steps. First things first: get the soil ready for next year.

As for the edible garden. Where and how to clear the stones and the brush and the saplings and the poison ivy for next season’s veggie and fruit garden? Where to get compost and mulch? Should we top it all up with some topsoil? What to fence in? Should we bring down some of the larger, more lovely trees to “make” sunlight?

As for the front yard. Due to the huge new leach field, most of it won’t be used for edible  or deep-rooted plants, so what to grow there then?

And what to grow in the “relaxation” and “entertainment” garden round back?

Dreaming big…

Shot of trees and roof of new house, April 2008 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

We’re back from a week in Toronto, mostly recuperating at my Aunt and Uncle’s place. Soon, I promise, there will be news about Amie’s now incessant “why?” question, her need for getting naked to go “swimming” at the most inopurtune moments, potty-training (almost complete), and more puzzling (with 24 pieces) and drawing (clothes are now in the picture as well!). And maybe I’ll reveal some about my novel (been getting requests)…

But first, a question to my readers (well, some of them, the farmers and gardeners in particular)…

One of our first priorities at the house is sowing a cover crop on the soil that was disturbed and left bare by the installation of the septic system. A lot of that beautiful dark humus-like topsoil – years if not decades of leaves had been allowed to stay and degrade where they fell – has unfortunately been turned under, and in many places what is at the surface now is light brown subsoil.

So: what should I sow to protect that bare soil from washing or blowing away, and to prime it with new organic matter and nitrogen for growing vegetables, herbs, berry bushes and fruit trees come next spring?

Crimson clover, hairy vetch? Rye? A combination of any or all of these? I don’t mind resowing as the seasons change from warm to cold. I’ll be cutting it down with a scythe and turning it under with a fork, but we’re only talking 0.4 or so acres.