An Overdue Update on Phoebe

Phoebe

This is her cute face. Her surprised by the camera face. Her usual expression is more calculating. Even frightening.

I realized that it’s been a long time since we updated you all on how our cat Phoebe is doing–well over a year, actually. And at that time, we told you we didn’t expect her to live more than 9 more months.

Surprise! She’s been doing really well.

(For those of you new to the blog, Phoebe has a malformed heart. It’s missing important parts. Here’s the original post from 10/25/11)

Thank goodness for drugs and really smart kitty cardiologists. Thank you, Dr. Zimmerman! The first vet to diagnose her sent her home to die. Our lesson: seek out the good vets. The meds that keep Phoebe alive are not even expensive.

Her quality of life has really improved since diagnosis. It’s even improved since our last post about her. When she first began treatment, she was sick, breathing hard and moving slow. But ever since we got her meds adjusted correctly, she’s been spry and happy, not at all acting like an old cat anymore.

True, she’s not quite as hyperactive as our other two cats, but she beats up Buck, the youngest of our cats, every morning like clockwork, loves to savage the fishing pole toy, and is diligently destroying the underside of our sofa. The sofa is her great work, an evolving art piece about the nature of entropy.

She will have a short lifespan, though. The drugs just buy her a little time.  Dr. Zimmerman told us the oldest cat she knew with Phoebe’s rare condition made it to four years old. Phoebe has already passed her second birthday. I’ve noticed her breathing sounds a bit wet lately, so we’re going to the vet this week and we hope an adjustment of her diuretics will clear that up.

Knowing her time is short just makes her all the more precious. I’ve come to appreciate her as a real “cat’s cat.” The other two cats, Buck and Trout, known collectively as “The Boys”, are too friendly and simpleminded to do credit to the cat kingdom.

Meanwhile, Phoebe is a real cat, a stone cold killer, a witch’s familiar, a walking riddle, an evil genius, an Egyptian statue with scornful golden eyes. Erik is her devoted slave. Me, she doesn’t like that much–but I’m still in love with her.

Last of the Saddle Tramps

Mesannie Wilkins

Mesannie Wilkins riding Rex,  Depeche Toi on Tarzan

A wise man once told me it’s good practice to read books published before you were born. Last of the Saddle Tramps just makes the cut. Published in 1966, it is a memoir, Mesannie Wilkin’s accounting of her great journey from Minot, Maine to Los Angeles. On horseback.

In 1954, Mesannie was 63 and she didn’t think she’d survive another winter in Maine. She’d been a farmer all her life, but now her kin were dead, her stock gone, she was plagued by bad lungs, and the bank was foreclosing on her house. Worse, her doctor told her she only had two or so years left to live–if she lived quietly.

Instead of following his advice, she decided to spend almost all of her money on a cheap horse, and traveled to the Golden State with her little dog, Depeche Toi, the clothes on her back, $32.00 in her pocket, and very little else. Along the way, she met with great kindness–and scores of unforgettable characters.

I read this book in a single sitting–it is that engrossing. Her voice is honest and engaging and the clear prose is full of  slow, country wit and precise character sketches. (Kudos to her co-writer, Mina Sawyer.)  The humor caught me first, and then I began to boggle at how tough this woman was. Rawhide tough. Seriously, reading this made me wonder why I’ve ever complained about anything in my life.

This story is a reminder that you’re never too old to change your course, shake up your life–or even have a grand adventure. It’s also refreshing to read a book where the hero is an older woman. Such stories are scarce as hens’ teeth.

I won’t say more. Highly recommended. I was lucky enough to find this book at the library. It’s also sold through the publishing arm of the Long Rider’s Guild (I think?), Horse Travel Books, where they keep all sorts of obscure, horsey memoirs in print. Bless them. It’s also available at Amazon, and you might find a used copy here or there, too.

Planetwalker John Francis

Planetwalker John Francis

Check out this interview in Grist with Dr. John Francis, the man who not only did not own a car, but opted to not ride in motorized vehicles at all for twenty-two years–and spent seventeen of those years in silence. He crossed America on foot, completed two college degrees in silence, and became an ambassador for the U.N.

You may have heard of him already–his story made the rounds years ago–but if you haven’t heard the details, haven’t heard him describe why he made the choices he did in his own words, you’re missing out. The man is wise, and he speaks from his heart.


Bonus: You can watch him talk at TED.

And find out what’s in his backpack.

And he’s got a book, Planetwalker: 22 Years of Walking. 17 Years of Silence.

Maintaining a Worm Bin

worm bin 1

This image might represent a new low in aesthetics from the Root Simple Photo Department. And that’s saying something.

I freshened up our big worm bin today and I thought I’d report on what I did because I get a lot of questions about worm bin maintenance.

First, I want to say this is just how I go about it. Other people will have different methods and habits. Worms are forgiving and reasonably adaptable, so you have a whole lot of leeway in keeping a bin. As long as you don’t let the worms dehydrate, drown, bake, or utterly starve, you’re going to be okay.

Our worm bin is pretty big (5 feet long), and made of pine boards.  It bears an unfortunate resemblance to a coffin, but it works wonderfully. I used plastic storage totes for my worm bins before we built this, and while those worked fine, I really like my big bin for two main reasons. The first is the size. It can take whatever I throw at it. It takes all my kitchen scraps, except for the really choice stuff that goes to the chickens. The second selling point is that the wood breathes, and that seems to make the worms happy.

Maintaining the Bin

The Conceptual Divide

I divide my bin into two areas, left and right. There’s no physical barrier between the sides, just a conceptual distinction. Usually one side is working and the other side is resting. This division is easy to make in a long, skinny bin like mine, but can be managed in a smaller bin as well.

Basically, once you’ve got a worm bin going, there will come a time when you’ll need to harvest some of the castings. Those castings are valuable in the garden, and the worms don’t want to live in their own waste. You’ll know its getting close to harvest time when you see pockets of scraps here and there, but mostly the texture of the contents looks like soil or coffee grounds. Or maybe fudge, if it’s more wet and compact. Fudge is a less than ideal environment for worms.

In the picture at the top you’ll see my most recent working side. There’s a lot going on in there still, some big food pockets, wood shavings everywhere, but the texture is becoming too black and dense overall. Compost worms like a little air, a little “wiggle room” and a diversity of habitat. It was past time to change this working side to a resting side.

Resting comes before harvest. This is where dividing the bin in two comes into play. Resting means no more feeding, so that the worms will finish up whatever bits of food are left around. But of course you can’t starve out your worms, so you only rest half of the bin at a time.  To do this, you put your food scraps on one side only. The worms on the resting side will finish up whatever food pockets remain and then migrate over to the active side for the fresh grub.

This doesn’t happen quickly. I’ve never made note of how long migration takes–it will vary, depending on many factors. I just poke around in the resting side whenever I happen to think about it. If I don’t see anything recognizable beyond non-digestibles, like avocado pits, fruit stones and egg shell shards, and I know it’s ready for harvest.

There will also be a few worms left, no matter how long you wait. More on them later. If your bin is outdoors, other insects like sow bugs might be in there too, but are harmless.

This is the process in a nutshell:

When your bin is looking mostly done, ie full of castings, rest one side of it. This means you feed only on the opposite side. When all the recognizable scraps are gone from the resting side, you harvest the castings. Then you can put fresh bedding in the empty space, and start encouraging the worms to move to that side.  Soon, you will be able to rest the opposite side of the bin, and eventually harvest it. And so it goes, back and forth.

Continue reading…

The tale of the worm bin celery

parsley flower

This is related to my recent post about our flowering radish. It’s a tale of botanic dumpster diving and another reason why you should let your food plants go to flower when you can.

Last year I threw the crown (which is to say, the bottom) of a celery plant in my worm bin. I probably should have chopped it up for the worms’ sake, but I didn’t. Later, sometime in the fall,  I rediscovered the celery crown. Instead of rotting in the bin, it had sprouted leaves and looked surprisingly vigorous. So I pulled it out and popped it into an empty space in one of our raised beds.

I didn’t have much hope. Celery doesn’t like our climate much, and I consider it one of those plants which is easier to buy than to grow.

To my surprise, the plant did quite well, though it did have a feral quality to it, despite its mild domestic origins. It didn’t grow fat, moist stalks which can be used to scoop up peanut butter. It grew stringy, dark green stalks which tasted powerfully of celery. It made excellent stock, and chopped into fine pieces, it was good in soup, too. Since I don’t eat much raw celery, this suited me fine.

All winter long I used this plant as the basis of my cold-weather cooking–chopped onions, carrots and celery in the bottom of every pot. It was a real treat not to have to buy celery for such a long time, and to have that flavor available whenever I wanted it. I should add that the leaves were just as flavorful as the stalks

As a side note, I’ve heard of a breed of celery made to work precisely this way, called cutting celery, but I’ve never grown it intentionally. The celery in this post looks very much like my homegrown “cutting celery.” Perhaps commercial celery wants to revert to this?

Months later, the hot weather arrived, the celery started to bolt (that is, send up flower stalks). When a plant bolts, it puts all its energy into flowering. At that point, its not much use to us as food. I was sad to lose my bottomless celery supply, but I was excited about the flowers.

Pollinating insects love celery blossoms. Actually, they adore the whole family of plants to which celery belongs, called Apiaceae or Umbelliferae (which I tend to call Umbrella Fae, which is wrong, but right in my head). This family includes carrots, celery, dill, coriander, fennel, Queen Anne’s lace, etc. If you can let any of this family bloom in your garden, do.

The parsley flowers grew almost as tall as me, and they were surrounded by clouds of tiny insects every day –shy, tiny little pollinators that I can’t name.

I love to let things go to flower and seed in the garden, because it is a way of giving back to the rest of nature. Flowers for the insects, seeds for birds. And by giving back, you help balance your garden. We’ve had significantly less issues with destructive insects since we learned to let our garden go a little wild.

Sadly, this celery never got to seed, because it collapsed under its own weight one day. Its thick, hollow stalks folded and the head of the plant fell to the patio.  I had hoped to save a little seed and try to grow a plant the next year from scratch. But now I’m thinking I’m going to throw a whole crown of celery in the worm bin this fall, and hope this happens all over again.

collapsed parsley plant

Watering 101

standing water in a bed

This is watering 101. Those of you who have been gardening for a while have probably learned this the hard way. Those of you just starting out may find it helpful.

Soil lies.

It looks wet, but it’s bone dry a fraction of an inch beneath. Or it looks dry on the surface, but it’s actually quite wet below. Or it’s wet, but only for one inch down.

The only way to find out if you’ve watered your garden enough is to stick your hand into the soil and make sure. You can’t garden without getting your hands dirty.

This is one reason why one of the most common questions, “How much do I water?” is one of the hardest to answer. The answer will vary, depending on your soil, the weather, the method you use to water, how often you water, and what you’re growing. In the end, you just have to use your hands and your common sense to figure it out. There is no formula.

In the picture above, you see the surface of the soil in one of our raised beds. This is imported soil, the kind that comes in bags. It doesn’t hold water in pools like clay soil does, it doesn’t sink in fast as it would in sandy soil. It’s actually pretty tricky to water because it seems like it should sop up water well, but I think all the organic matter in it actually slows absorption.

At any rate, I’d been watering this bed for some time with a sprinkler hose, waving it back and forth until I got bored. The water sunk in at first, then started to pool on the surface, and the pool lasted for a long time. At this point, a beginner might think she’d watered enough, but I’ve been fooled often enough before.

I reached down into the bed and scraped at the soil. A fraction of an inch beneath the wettest area, the soil was still perfectly dry. That’s what I tried to capture in the picture below–see all that dry soil? It was just beneath the surface of the puddle.  I wasn’t done watering.

dry dirt under water

In general, you need to be sure that the soil in the bed is evenly moist.  Not soggy and soppy, not dry, but pleasantly moist and springy. Over-watering can be problem as much as under-watering. If you know your soil tends to hold water, it may pay to dig before you even start watering. You may find you don’t need to water at all.

In a regularly watered bed, the deeper you dig, the more retained moisture you are likely to find, but the first few inches dry out fast. Older, deeper rooted plants don’t mind this so much if the top dries out, because they can reach deep for water, but if you’re dealing with young or shallowly rooted plants, you have to be very careful with the first five inches or so. Don’t trust your eyes. Trust your hands.

Radish Surprise

radish close

A volunteer radish–I think it is a daikon–sprouted up in a little clear pocket of our yard. We let it go, ignored it. It grew bigger, and bigger, and bigger. Usually a radish is harvested early, so we never see how big they can get.

This one got huge, then burst out into hundreds of tiny purple flowers. Hummingbirds, honey bees and all sorts of flying insects visit it all day, every day. It has become one of the queens of the garden.

The picture below is horrible. The radish plant really is quite pretty,  the equal of any ornamental flowering shrub–but as bad is the picture is, it gives you some scale. See the bales of our straw bale garden behind it?  I think it must be pulling water from there, which accounts for its size and longevity. It’s gone a little past its prime now– a couple of weeks ago the blooms were thicker.

By the way, radish blossoms are tasty food for people, too.

radish flower

Picture Sunday: Images of Detroit

Fox Run by Jill Nienhuis

Fox Run by Jill Nienhuis

Root Simple readers are talented people. This week I discovered that regular reader Jill Nienhuis is not only an urban homesteader, but a talented artist, too. Her paintings and other projects are wonderful – -you can see more at her website : Jill Nienhuis

Jill lives in a neighborhood in NW Detroit called Brightmoor. It’s a neighborhood which has fallen on hard times, but is being revitalized, largely through gardening. She and her boyfriend, Michael, are growing a large garden on several vacant lots, and are looking to buy a house near their garden at auction. Land in Brightmoor is inexpensive. (One of the lots she gardens on cost $210.)  She also says that there’s a 170 acre forest at the edge of her neighborhood, which makes it feel more like the country than the city.

Looking at Google images of the Brightmoor areas, I agree. It does have a country feel. There’s lots of open space, lots of green lushness — along with the blighted houses and other signs of urban decay. You can also see this in her work, of course. It looks like a place waiting to wake up and blossom. It just needs caring hands, and people with vision. And as you can tell by their work, Jill and Michael have plenty of vision.

Thanks for letting us share your work, Jill!

hubbard farms

Hubbard Farms by Jill Nienhuis

Climate Change and Personal Responsibility

stop waste poster

Erik and I make it a general policy not to engage in politics on this blog. Homesteading is about local and personal change foremost, after all, and it’s a big enough movement to embrace many beliefs. Also, talking politics brings out the trolls, and that’s no fun for anyone.

But.  I’ve got to bring this up. And I hope you’ll go along with me and not see this as sort of support or condemnation of any political party, nor an invitation to bash specific politicians. It is an observation about American culture as a whole.  This observation spins off of President Obama’s recent speech on climate change, and climate change is bigger than political parties, bigger than nation states.

grow-food

While I’m happy to see that we are (finally!) speaking about climate change on a national level, I noticed one striking omission from the President’s speech. He did not make any suggestion that individual Americans might want to pitch in and help mitigate this global crisis through changing their personal habits.

This despite the fact that Americans, per capita, have double the carbon footprint of our comparably well-off neighbors in Europe. Despite the fact that, according to the World Watch Institute, “The United States, with less than 5 % of the global population, uses about a quarter of the world’s fossil fuel resources—burning up nearly 25 % of the coal, 26 % of the oil, and 27 % of the world’s natural gas.”

All our President asks of us, toward the end, is that we add our voices to political discourse on the subject.

Understand this is not just a job for politicians. So I’m going to need all of you to educate your classmates, your colleagues, your parents, your friends. Tell them what’s at stake. Speak up at town halls, church groups, PTA meetings. Push back on misinformation. Speak up for the facts. Broaden the circle of those who are willing to stand up for our future.

Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution. Push your own communities to adopt smarter practices. Invest. Divest. Remind folks there’s no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth. And remind everyone who represents you at every level of government that sheltering future generations against the ravages of climate change is a prerequisite for your vote. Make yourself heard on this issue.

Political action is all well and good, but as we’re always saying, change starts at home. We’re all in this together, and it’s important that we, as individuals, acknowledge the cost of our lifestyle and, if it seems appropriate to us after reflection, take action to alter that lifestyle.

Leaving personal responsibility out of the equation has a two-fold effect. First, it makes the issue abstract. It becomes someone else’s problem and someone else’s fault. Then the blame game begins. Second, it makes us feel disempowered: if the problem is all about politics and industry, it’s too big for any one person to tackle. So why try at all? And this leads to a strange brew of free-floating anxiety and denial.

canning poster

Dear readers, you know all of this. You are taking action. I shouldn’t harangue you. I’m just frustrated.

The last time that I can remember any president asking us to do something other than shop ’til we drop was Jimmy Carter, way back in 1977 when I was just a sprout:

We must face the fact that the energy shortage is permanent. There is no way we can solve it quickly. But if we all cooperate and make modest sacrifices, if we learn to live thriftily and remember the importance of helping our neighbors, then we can find ways to adjust and to make our society more efficient and our own lives more enjoyable and productive. Utility companies must promote conservation and not consumption. Oil and natural gas companies must be honest with all of us about their reserves and profits. We will find out the difference between real shortages and artificial ones. We will ask private companies to sacrifice, just as private citizens must do.

Oh Jimmy, if we’d only started conserving 40 years ago, think how much better off we’d be today.

Ah well. We should have adopted the metric system back then, too, for that matter. When did we become such pampered children? When did sacrifice become a dirty word?

world-war-2-posters-112

I’ve heard it said more than once in the climate change community that the only real chance we have of pulling our collective bacon out of the fire, i.e. limiting global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius (we’re up 1 degree as of now), will be through an international mobilization effort requiring personal sacrifice the likes of which has not been seen since WWII.

Invariably the commenters go on to say that such action is obviously impossible. Politically unfeasible. Unrealistic. And that means we’re inevitably headed for a far more dangerous–really terribly unthinkable–3 or 4 degree rise.

What I want to know is why the possibility of positive change is so easily and cynically dismissed. What’s more scary?:

 Global Catastrophe which will Curse All Life on the Planet Permanently

vs.

Riding the Bus

(or committing to local food or flying less or setting your thermostat low or buying used clothing or whatever equally scary measure you’d like to propose)

It really doesn’t seem like such a hard choice to make.

It may indeed be politically unfeasible. I’ve long stopped looking to the national level for meaningful action or leadership. But we can do a lot on a personal level. We can start a people’s revolution. A Revolution of Reasonableness.

It’s already happening. There’s been so much positive change on this front, even just in the last few years. Urban homesteading, slow food, organics, bikes, car share, DIY, all of it — it’s blossoming. It’s very hopeful.  I’m going to put the next part in italics because it’s so important: The pleasure and satisfaction that we all receive from living this way is the positive counterspell to the dark enchantment of consumer culture.

When we live this way, we become positive examples to others–and though it may not always be obvious, we do influence them. And even if the changes we make in our lifestyle are small, the accumulation of small lifestyle changes by millions of people can have a big impact on both our culture and the environment. Everybody, no matter what their means, can do something to pitch in.

vacation-at-home

What I’ve been pondering lately is how to take it to the next level, how to up the rate of change. Is it possible to engage the famously lazy, self-centered American consumer in this revolution?

Well, I think it is, because “the American consumer” is another unhelpful abstraction, if not a convenient scapegoat. Who is this selfish creature of legend? I’m an American consumer. As are all my family and neighbors. There is no us and them in this fight. We can all do more.

So what do you think? Would you be willing to mobilize and sacrifice on a World War type scale if you knew it would do real good?

I’ve been looking at WWII propaganda posters from the U.S. and Britain, noting that a lot of what they needed to do, we need to do, too.

Any artists out there want to make a new breed of propaganda posters for this cause? I think that would be a swell thing.

And remember:

ride alone

All Hail Our Succulent Overlords

succulent

Nature made this. It’s growing in a pot on our front porch. I am in a state of wonder and amazement. It is so perfect in all its parts, so regal and confident, that I just want to kneel down before it and say “I am not worthy to be in your presence, 0 plant god. I am nothing but a flabby, destructive primate.”

I don’t know the name of this succulent– and I know someone is going to ask! Does anybody know the name of this plant? Below is a pic of the rosette from which this rare flower has sprung. It’s none too shabby, either, obviously. But I never expected it had such beautiful secrets hidden inside.

suc top copy