Wednesday, April 13, 2011

It's Mid-April: What Else Do I Plant?

This weekend, I paid a visit to Home Depot because they had a Gardening class at 1:00pm.  When I arrived with my two little girls, I was shocked to find the teacher ratio was 1:1!!  I was the only one there!  Needless to say, I took advantage of this and fired a barrage of questions at the instructor, whose name was Sandra.  Poor lady.  She never knew what she was in for.  How do you rotate your crops?  What are the best edibles to plant in the shade and which are best in full sun?  How do you maximize produce?  Can you plant on the same rows?  Which herbs are best within the garden?  Why...What...When...?   In the end, I had gathered quite a bit of information but I think I exhausted the woman.  Nonetheless, according to Sandra, here are some of my takeaways:

1)  For a heavy producing garden, plant heavily in the Peppers group.   Bell peppers, Jalapeno peppers and Banana peppers were my preferences.

2) For heavier produce, put all Tomatoes and Squash in full sun and add Eggplant to that mix. 

3) Watering for a garden has to be extremely regular because, like the human body adjusts to skipping breakfast, a plant will adjust to less water.  If you suddenly began watering again, you can actually drown the plant!  On the flip side, a plant which is regularly watered can more freely produce an abundance of fruit or vegetables. 

4) There are various kinds of Eco friendly bug sprays and rapid grow sprays which are a must in this climate.  Box beetles and leaf pests have grown in number in recent years and they can quickly kill a garden. 

5) I didn't get full answers on rotating crops, but what I did gather is that you don't want to plant things that give low produce like cabbage or Corn.  Some of these crops take months to produce little.  However, it is important to keep in mind that my options are going to be limited in Winter and "cold weather crops" are low producing anyway.  Cucumbers, Beans and Black Eyed Peas are the crops that keep on giving. 

6) Grass is as much of an asset in gardening as are my gardening beds.  The grass is the most rapid feeder to my compost pile.  Whereas leaves and wood breakdown after a while, grass breaks down and composts quickly.  One of the best things you can do is buy chickens and put them in the chicken tractor.  This actually helps your grass grow faster. 

7) Sandra introduced me to a couple of herbs which make a great addition to our herb collection (we have been pretty staple with having your standard Cilantro, Basil and Rosemary plants here and there).  Lemon Thyme has an excellent taste with a nice kick and Stevia is a conversation piece because of its sugar alternative press. 

Needless to say, I walked out of Home Depot with Tomato plants, Herbs, Squash, Peppers and Eggplant.  Christy, my wife, later picked up, among other things, a Blueberry Bush and a healthy Strawberry plant.

On a side note, I noticed yesterday that the frontrunner in my recent plantings is a surprise:  My Sunflowers just came shooting out of the ground!  Wow.  I don't know if this continues, but they are very quick.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Protein Sources: Fish, Chicken or Both?

During one of our conversations regarding Urban Homesteading, the topic arose regarding protein sources of food for our home.  At first, we were thinking about chickens, but we live in a relatively conservative neighborhood, so if it is to be chickens, it has to be low profile.  Then the conversation came up regarding fish.  I never thought in a million years I would be considering raising fish in my yard!  Having spent some time online looking into chickens and fish, I came up with some pros and cons of both.

1) Easy to maintain.
2) Hardy animals to stay outside.
3) With a "chicken tractor", they naturally aerate and fertilize the yard!
4) Regular egg production.
5) Entertaining for the kids.

1) It would require my building or buying this chicken tractor.  
2) Not readily accepted or embraced by the more conservative neighbors.
3) Can sometimes be loud.
4) Might attractive some larger predators to the yard (coyotes and hawks). 

(For us- the best are likely Trout or Tilapia)
1) Quiet and low key
2) Entertaining for the kids
3) This sets me up for a Hydroponics/Greenhouse add-on (will explain later).
4) Rapid growth and reproduction. 

1) Requires temperature monitoring and controls (cold for Trout and warm for Tilapia).
2) Plumbing and water filtering mechanisms are required (not my strenghs).
3) Possibility of "fish kill" where entire school dies because they can be temperamental.
4) Trout have omnivorous diet (plant and smaller fish). 
5) Will likely require a greenhouse to protect from various climates and predators (Raccoons are known to invade).  This affects lot planning.
6) Painfully regular feedings.

I've chewed on this for a while, but I think the answer is really a combination of both.  This way we don't have to go overboard with a lot of chickens (I think Cobb County only allows for 6 anyway) or a lot of fish.  You don't have to read much to see that too many fish in a tank can stress them out.  This applies more to Trout than Tilapia as Tilapia typically swim in tight schools. 

**Use what you have. I have a lot of spare wood from a piece of the deck we had to rip out and I will likely use that for the chicken tractor.  Also, it is a little unusual, but we moved into a house with a broken jacuzzi.  So, we will likely try to put our trout there.  I now wish I hadn't drilled holes in the bottom to make it a storage unit!!  I'll have to plug those now... Also, when in a general conversation with my neighbor, he happened to have a fish pond and pump he was about to throw away!  So, yay, I have two containers for both fish!!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Alternative Energy: First, Find out What You Use Part 1

This morning, I was doing research on the web about how to "get off the grid" or how to work towards, not only using alternative energy, but how to sell some of my own energy back to the utility company (making my usage meter move in reverse)!   To me, this is an awesome concept because it wasn't possible several years ago.  Anyhow, I don't know much at all about electricity (just ask my wife about the time I installed a light and virtually shut down all the electricity in our house because of my wiring), but I can follow common sense thinking (most of the time). 
Before pursuing solar or wind alternatives,  it is first necessary to figure out how much power your house is using and, in turn, figure out what each appliance uses.  It never crossed my mind to do this and I certainly wasn't excited about the prices of the meters you can buy for this, like the $249.99 Cent-O-Meter at  Granted, it does some pretty cool stuff like giving you over-usage alerts and allows you to set your own perameters, but I would rather save my money for the solar panels.  There's also a $25 Killl A Watt product I'm thinking about purchasing:, but the purpose of this blog is to demonstrate the most cost efficient ways to improve living standards without getting nickel-and-dimed to death. 
So, the FREE way to do this is to plug in each appliance, go outside, look at your meter and see exactly what is getting used.  A pretty good online tool for this is the "Electric Meter Calculator" in the middle of the page of  This might take me a while, so I will go through this exercise and report back with my findings in Part 2. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Prepping the Raised Bed

It's been a couple of weeks since my last blog, but I have been preparing my garden and learning a lot in the process.  One of the key points of my last blog was to not underestimate the importance of GOOD DIRT.  But another pointer I picked up was the notion of raised beds.  Initally, I thought a raised bed was just a wooden boxed filled with dirt, but I learned that it also refers to creating raised rows for your garden.  Raised rows are great for a number of reasons;

1) It allows roots to grow freely in establishing a flexible underground root system.
2) It allows for healthy drainage. 
3) It allows fresh dirt or compost to be added from the sides rather than trying to add on top of the plants.
4) It allows for walkways in between each planted area.
5) It is a lot more deliberate for the planning process.
6) It allows more flexibility to rearrange or split plants once they are large enough. 
7) For carrots, potatos or turnips, it allows for larger vegetables. 
8) Weeding for this type of garden is easier as well. 

The primary downside of this kind of garden is the prep work it requires, not to mention a huge amount of dirt.  Fortunately, I found some fresh dirt around other parts of my yard where I had piled leaves and grass clippings in years past.  What a sigh of relief when I knew that bags of mulch can be costly (I saw what looked to be an 80 pound bag for $10 at Home Depot, but it doesn't take much dirt to make 80 pounds.)  Also, I was very thankful to have had wood chips dumped in my driveway twice in the last 5 years.  It's surprising how fast those chips go to mulch!  What great dirt, too!  You can call around to various tree services for free wood chips or at least cheap wood chips since these guys need a place to dump them.  Usually, when they are in your area, they will call you. 

Planning the garden wasn't that hard, but I messed up on one thing that I hope turns out okay.  For some reason, as I was constructing the raised beds, the dirt piles rose higher and higher (I was adding more dirt to each progressive row without noticing).  So, when I was deciding what to plant in each row, I put my "root" plants; turnip and carrots on the highest rows so they would have more room to grow underground.  Only after I had planted these rows did I realize that bush beans in the rows following might well block the sun to these plants for a couple hours a day since these bean plants grow fairly high and are East of the others.  Oh well.  Live and learn.  The other question I had to ask myself was, why did I plant an entire row of Jalapeno plants?  Don't get me wrong; I love Jalapenos as does my family, but an entire row?  I guess my thinking was that each planting required a lot of space in between.  Right or wrong, we decided to plant Bell Peppers in the same row and we will just separate the plants as they demand. 

Elsewhere in the yard, against the fence (so they can climb), we planted cucumber.  While I was building up the bed, I then noticed we have watermelon growing here!  It never took last year and it must have gathered strength over the winter.   Additionally, we are digging another 15x8 garden area for other plants.  We planted a blue berry bush near our pool which, I learned after placing it, I had not checked to see if it had been "cross-pollinated" so that it is fruit bearing.  Hmmm.  I put plant supporters on the wild blackberries that are growing along the fence.  The muscadine vines that are streaming up in the back still never seem to produce, but again, maybe I'll get lucky.  I just clear the way for them and encourage growth.  Honeysuckle is plentiful in along the South side of our property as well (flowers are edible).  We will be planting Foxglove and Sunflowers in the front (both are edible); tomatoes and squash against the house.  It's worth noting that my wife liked the squash near the house because their huge flowers attract bumble bees.  She would go out to water the plants in the mornings and would find 2 to 3 bees in each flower and they appeared to be sleeping!!

Check you later...


Friday, March 11, 2011

Landscape Planning Continues

Progress has been slow over the last few days because I have not had a lot of extra time.  We have had multiple meetings to launch (still not working, but check it out in several weeks!) and the stock market is tanking, too.  But I did accomplish a few things:

1. I finished with a list of the edible flower plants which we can plan in our front yard.  As a result, this weekend I have a fair amount of digging to do in order to extend the flower beds (you can see from the pictures of my yard that "flower beds" is a bit of a misnomer).

2. I connected with one of my clients in Georgia who has had quite a lot of experience farming and we talked about some of his wins and losses in gardening.  He agreed that water is important, but he said that one of the biggest mistakes his neighbors' make when they have little success is they underestimate the importance of good soil.  My client said that he will mix together good soil, manure, wood chips and sand.  Additionally, every few years, he would haul in some chicken farm manure. 

 "Don't underestimate the importance of good soil!"

3. This same client gave me a list of things I should be preparing to plant if I were to do what he does.  These are:  Bush Beans, Peppers, Okra, Squash, Eggplant, Carrots, Cucumbers and Tomatoes.

4. I called the drum container distributor and apparently they have raised the costs of their barrels (remember, I was going to use them to make rain barrels).  Instead of $15 each, the barrels will cost $25 each.  Darn!  So, now with the other materials I need to make the barrels, it will likely cost about $10 for the drain cover and $15 -$20 for the faucet set bringing my total anticipated costs to $55 per rain barrel.  If those faucets are any more expensive than this cost, I might as well buy the $100 "designer" rain barrels at Home Depot.   I think I've already resigned myself to that for the front yard, especially knowing that these barrels allow for an overflow back into the down spouts when the barrels are full.  For now, I'll continue to keep an eye out on Craig's list for some lower priced barrels. 

5. With an acute eye out on how to transform my home, I have to be very open-minded.  Because I had already built a large pen in the back for compost, it is easy to resume my previous compost pile habits of taking out leftovers.  Now, I am thinking of all the things that we waste.  But, oddly enough, I am even beginning to think about an outhouse!  Crazy idea, but think how much we truly due waste in good soil down the toilet!  I know... it sounds radical, but I just need to chew on this a little more...

6. Yesterday, I found out that my two rose bushes are edible as are the Gladiolus plants my wife laid out in front of our white picket fence.  I could care less last year, but as a new urban homesteader, I am ecstatic!
7. I'm not sure if it is worth mentioning, but I also found a link about how to make a light bulb out of water and a little Clorox!  Maybe I can use this in my outhouse!  :)  

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Way too cool. I have edible plants!!

After blogging yesterday, I continued researching the WATER issue.  I went to my county's (Cobb County) website and learned that, not only are rain barrels permitted, but they are encouraged.  In fact, Cobb County has videos on their site which teach you how to make your own inexpensive rain barrel!!  There is a drum recycler and drum container outfit about 20 miles away who sells large 55 gallon drums for (so they say) $15 each.  So, it looks like I can build 4 rain barrels myself, hopefully for less that $40 each.  I am planning on making that trip midweek.
Okay, that said, and getting to the meat of this blog post, I also found on some gardening calendars that the first two weeks in March is the best time to be planning out upcoming raised beds and planting areas.  But being a true "dummy" when it comes to gardening, I thought that the best thing to do first would be to figure out WHAT I wanted to plant.  Since I want my homestead to be a quasi-food source & quasi-wilderness survival training ground (for my family), I decided to use Google to find out which plants/flowers are edible.  Btw, it's worth noting that my wife is an interior designer and sensitive to the aura that is created around our home, so I can't just begin planting gardens in the front yard with no regard for our neighbors.  The Home Owners Association can be difficult, but my greater concern is being considerate of my wife.  So, my thought process was, why not plant a nice looking "edible flower garden" in the front yard and I can create the larger vegetable gardens in the back yard?   My wife would be thrilled about my sudden interest in making our front yard beatiful with annuals and perrenials!   With this goal in mind, I quickly found link that listed out flowers that can be eaten...  What a great source! 

Since I don't know the names of flowers, I had to Google each name to see if I liked the looks of them.  This would help me to figure out how I would keep the yard looking nice aesthetically while achieving my food goals at the same time.   and then cut and paste the picture to an Excel spread sheet.  Also on that spreadsheet was when to plant, how to plant and how to eat the plant (for future reference).  To my surprise, I found that I have at least 4 plants that are edible due to blossom in several months:

1. Day Lilies - Wow, I'm glad I didn't chunk these when we moved them a couple of years ago!  They are really easy to maintain.  Actually, I don't do anything for them.  They just keep coming back.
2. I had not considered the Crabapple tree as a source for sowing produce, but I will. 
3. We have a small patch of Pansies that come back every year.  They're edible!! 
4. Our backyard fence has a stretch of about 15 yards of Honeysuckle.  It turns out you can eat the whole flower, not just the teeny tiny bit of honey portion . 

No question I will value these plants much more as I move forward.  I'm even looking forward to "harvesting" the Day Lillies and Pansies!  Also, on the list were several nice looking, well presenting plants that should add a lot of color to the front yard.  I just have to figure out what goes where especially when some plants need full sun and others shade. 
A very interesting addition to the planting list is the raised beds I have to build for Clover and Dandelions.  Surprising, but very nutritious members of the edible world.  I'll just have to be sure those dandelions don't get too mature....
Well, I have to go.  Still a lot of planning, thinking and preparing for late March with this new obsession.  I'll check back later. 

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The water, the water, the water...

There are many reasons why I would like to create an urban homestead and I will talk about those in a minute, but for those of you who don't know exactly what the term "urban homestead" means, it refers to the conversion of a normal home into just the opposite.  It is a movement started by the Dervais family in Pasadena California.  During a time when America seems to have lost its roots (living off the land) in the name of technology advancements, this family has become almost entirely self sufficient and they even bring in an income from selling produce grown on only 1/10 of an acre of land!!  Their lot is only 1/5 of an acre.   You should really check out their site if you have in interest in this kind of thing...  What they have accomplished is truly amazing.  So many people have been inspired by them, that a wave of urban farming has been set afoot.
 Urban Homestead
So, if this family can do what they have done with the little that they have, how much more can I do with what my family has?  We live on a 1/2 acre lot and my wife and I both have pretty good jobs.  Granted, our mortgage payments are more than what the Dervais family spends in an entire year, maybe we can save enough money (and even make money) piggy backing on their model.  The downside of starting something like this is that I have little time and our cash flow is limited.  I have a job that requires busy 5-day weeks and I am currently working with 3 other guys to launch a (brilliant) website, (as of this posting date, the link is not live, but please try back and check it out).  Christy, my wife, works 3 days a week, but then works on most weekends.  Also, Christy and I, along with my kids, 13,10 and 7, eat like healthy horses.   What's more, we have 3 dogs, 2 cats, a guinea pig and 2 Beta fish.  None of these animals lay eggs and we would prefer not to breed them for food.  I did notice that the Dervais family uses their rabbits to eat leftovers and to create good soil for their plants.

There are a few other reasons why Homesteading is important to me and I think it is worth mentioning on this blog.  I work in the stock market and what I see transpiring appears to be an eminent collapse in the dollar.  For most people, the significance of this doesn't make sense, but what does make sense are $25 hamburgers at McDonalds an $20 loaves of bread.  My friends tell me this will never happen, but what I know that they don't is that Brazil and Russia have both eliminated the dollar from their trade with China in the last year and a half.  That sent $100 billion in unwanted dollars back here (which partially explains a strong stock market).  That's BAD.  If other countries follow suit, as I think they will, then the dollar will continually lose its buying power and the stage will be set for a severe devaluation.  Okay, that's my economic rant.  Suffice it to say that I don't want to spend all my hard earned savings on FOOD!!  If we (and you) are prepared with homesteads, a downturn might actually work in our favor. I am going to give you a visual of my starting point; my home/property.  Here are a few pics:

Our home, in my opinion is quaint and friendly.  The yard isn't bad, but I think we can improve on the front shrubs and maybe landscape with edible plants on islands that we create.  My challenge will be learning what I can plant in the shade and elsewhere.

 The backyard (excuse the off-season green color of the pool..ughhh) needs a little work.  A warn out deck, cracked concrete along the pool, some drainage problems and a broken jacuzzi are just a few of the many projects I could claim.  So, for now, I just have to prioritize a new punch list for my "new urban homestead project". 

One of the biggest reasons we bought out house was because of the backyard.  It is one of the only flat lots in our entire neighborhood!  Plus, we have a lot of room, including a pool (which takes out a fairly substantial portion of the 1/2 acre).  Most of the 6 hour sun comes in on the right hand side of the yard, but we can always take out limbs and trees to get more.  Another challenge is going to be how do we keep the dogs from running through the garden areas.  I might have to make almost every garden growing area a raised bed, which should also help keep out the grass clippings from the lawn mower.   

There are a few planting areas in the backyard, but up until now in previous years, we have only planted cucumbers, some beets, some beans (both of which we neglected) and some corn.  Otherwise, we have planted a number of flowering plants.  There are traces of wild muscadine and blackberries, but we have capitalized very effectively on these.  I will probably start my project from the right rear of the property and move towards the house.  It will require some planning, but I will press on. 

Even though, I was clearing out an area in the back, this Saturday morning we woke up to a rainy day, so I began looking for another piece of this puzzle to explore and what I found was that the biggest priority for food growth as we near Spring and Summer is WATER.  Urban homesteaders make no bones about it.  You have to come up with some sort of plan to give plants a constant watering.  It's almost like having house pets.  Every morning and every night (usually).  So, even though this is an introductory post, my first order of business was checking out Rain Barrels at Home Depot.  I found a link on one website before I left which said the best way to figure out what an inch of rainfall on your roof would yield is by calculating the following formula:

Length of house (about 60 feet in my case) times the width (33 feet) times 0.6 = Water Yield (roughtly 1,200 gallons for me). 

Trying to collect and save that rainwater, for me would mean having 24 rain barrels.  Ummmm.....NO.   Okay, so maybe I just start off with one and see how well I keep up with it....A nice on at Home Depot cannot be had for less than $120, so I came back home to see if there were any other alternatives;  maybe make my own or use something I already have... Then there's Craigslist.  We'll see.  Check back later...