Even in a suburban garden, you sometimes get to witness remarkable wildlife in action. Such was the case the other day when I turned around while feeding my chicks, to find a magnificent clean up operation going on.

Maybe I just identify with beings that stuff their mouths. I really do like and appreciate the snakes on our property just much as I dislike and cuss at the mice and sparrows that invade it, spreading their vermin inside and out. True, those grungy sparrows are just trying to make a living and get dinner — but then, so is the snake.

Even if snakes are not your thing, I hope you can appreciate this remarkable achievement in a young snake’s life –


Go snake.

Mischief Managed.

Enjoy this piece? Check out the “Part Two” at my other blog,




Unexpected August Harvests



Sometimes I hate August gardening. Or so I say to myself as I pick my way through humid, wet, over-grown tomato plants that tangle with wild morning glory vines. Those crazy vines grow so fast, and twist around and around every vertical stalk or post or fence, through the other leaves, around the other plants, an agony of overgrowth. They scramble my view of any harvest. What harvest? That is what I am out here looking for, after all. Last month I wrote of heat, but this month of outrageous amounts of rain has seen barely enough sun and heat to turn my fat tomatoes red, or my green peppers into green peppers. Ugh. Will there really be NO HARVEST?

But I know this feeling from of old. I remember how just when I am are ready to say “After all that work?? Is everything sick and dying?! I quit!” that the plants seem to groan, “Okay,  okay” and searching around under those piles of messy, mottled, chewed on, sprawling leaves (and scrambling vines, damn them) yields ripe tomatoes! Green beans! and peppers that you didn’t see at all at first. Suddenly, sure enough, I can bring in supper from our own yard.


But this August is a little different. This last week of  August, my harvest included some unexpected and unwanted tubers. I did not plant these ones – at least not on purpose.  These tubers are in fact breast cancers, growing in the soil of my body along with everything else.

To be seeded with spores and growing a harvest of cancer should not really be a surprise for me . Both my mother and my great-aunt fought this same weed of the body. But the mind can play tricks.  My cerebral cortex just did not really believe that I would get cancer. Why? Because it would be too obvious? Because I grow and eat a lot of veggies? Because my role as the mother of a special needs young man would protect me? Superstition made me immune. Only, it didn’t. And as surely as the morning glories run wild all over my gardens every summer, my body has been growing a useless and invasive crop.

As Edward and I gather in the green beans from the poles this week and watch the acorn squash mature, I am also gathering my energies, preparing to be weeded, and to wrestle out the roots of disease. I am making better habits, getting rest, eating well, stretching and working my muscles.  I am reading, educating myself to know my enemy, just as I have poured over pages on plant diseases during other troubled harvest times, trying to plan my attack on marauding viruses, bacteria, or parasites. Will it be chop, or burn, or poison? I favor chopping this time — less toxic, and perhaps more permanent. I will consider all my options.  As Edward and I worked through the garden beds over the weekend it was satisfying to rip down useless vine off fences and out of netting, wrench roots from the soil, and watch the liberated plants shake free and breathe. I will think of that as I am healing.

But there is still more to the Simons garden harvests this August — can you believe it? What a rich month we are having!

The most superior harvest for our family was expected in September – but could not wait. And so in the last week of  Augyst she was coaxed from her mother tree, and out into her father’s arms. Four pounds four ounces of pure sweetness. Baby Marlee Faryn Simons was born a wee bit early. Edward and I are grandparents, and before too many more days we will fly into September in the Rockie Mountains, leaving Maryland far behind. For a little while at least.


Marlee Faryn Simons


Water Draws Us Together



Kaubashine shoreline, courtesy of Alicia Ihnen

Today is a watering day.  I am grateful and so are the cucumbers that it is such a simple matter to get a drink out to my plants, so they do not croak in the blazing Maryland sun. As I run the hose under the beans, I find these words from a poem flowing through my mind —

Water draws us together

We float and swim

in a sea of rushing leafy branches

in the sparkle of light from those trees.

I am just back from a delightful road trip vacation that included two lakes, the first a family reunion on a Wisconsin lake called Kaubashine. As a twenty-something in 1988 I wrote this floral and unabashedly romantic poem about love, loss, and family – and about the power of water, the lake which brought us all there to be together there.

As I pick the pole beans and the sweat trickles into my eyes, I try to recall the next lines of the poem —

Lying on the lake-view porch

our words swim to each other

in leaf tossing air.

The lake and its children,

wind, pine, and loon,

draw us to it and to each other–

we are a family again

not one missing.

We recognize each other

responding ripplingly.


Well I said it was unabashedly romantic and floral.

As I stand in the wonderful baking sunshine armed with my hose, it seems clear to me that we are drawn together, knit together, our bodies and our civilization, by the clean water that we take so much for granted. Remarkable, really on a 90 degree day in a chain of 90 plus degree days to have water to drink, to wash the sweat off my itchy arms in the gardens, to splash my face, or to climb into a shower after hours in the muggy and baking heat, rinse all that salt and sweat and hopefully as yet-unattached ticks away, under an outpouring of clean H2O!

That is if you can’t dive into a lake to do the job. Mentally i am still on the shores of Kaubashine, or swimming in it, and I am remembering the loons. When I was a child they predicted that the water birds would not stay on the lake in the advent of noisy motor boats. But loons adapted. They still swim and call their crazy call on Lake Kaubashine in 2017  (For the uninitiated, the bird’s hysterical sounding call is where our we get the word “loony.”) Some things have certainly changed though. Many more houses, and big houses. And the lake water seemed a little less clean than I remembered, which could be a function of the large lawns these mansion builders have laid down. A lawn usually means petroleum, fertilizers, and insecticides. And these the rain washes right down into the lake. Today all around Kaubashine where birch trees used to lean out from forest at the shoreline bright green lawns slope instead. It is hard for me to understand why anyone would put a lawn in, at lake in the woods – wasn’t the point of coming to the woods to leave all that behind? Like Thoreau, “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life”?


In my great grandfather Oscar’s day, the logging companies had chopped down all the trees around this and many other lakes in the area, raping the ecosystem completely. Then realty companies sold the naked, stump filled land for water-front vacation property. Oscar Scalbom, once a 13 year old Swedish immigrant, had just made a successful invention and was able to buy a huge piece of treeless land around this lake. For a long time hunters and fishermen lived in little cabins here, and  vacationers swam and rowed. A vacation on the lake in those days meant encountering the water up close and personal, and living with and in the woods environment, which was a nice change from the summer heat of Illinois. My grandma swam all day in this lake all summer long, peed in the out-house, pumped and drank water from the well, and washed and hung her clothes on a line. Before air conditioning was invented to keep us from actually touching the air…before the mighty gasoline spewing motor boat…before water skiing….But I am not going to pretend that i am not grateful for my modern hose and the complex water system that backs it!

Let us pray the wild loons and the plant, fish and crustacean systems in existence for so many millennia carry on, as we keep trying to figure out how to do better.

 Here spirits of past rites

are present in each tree

But above all the water

beyond all, in the lake and its sky–

Apart from all explaining

in the water – its sandy bottom, lily pads

and the water-borne morning call of the loon.

Photo courtesy of Amy Bonczkowski

Moms Aren’t Chicken

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Facing the world alone…

My friend and I went out to lunch yesterday and compared experiences with our young not-quite-adult children. Our youngest sons are both high school graduates this year. We mourned children who were communicative as young ones, and now necessarily shutting mom out in their effort to become independent. We held hands across the table and almost cried over our sense of loss — almost, but we didn’t. Because this process is entirely as it should be. If the kids didn’t do it,  we know we would be worried. Still, having kids home from school for the summer can be enough to drive any loving mom crazy. It could be worse though, I said to my son at supper. You could have a chicken for a mom.

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A little puff on the celebratory graduation cigar


Yesterday mama hen must have woke up and decided she WASN’T a mom any more. All day long we watched as the little flock of five juniors straggled around the back yard without her. And to make the new status really clear, (to them? to herself perhaps?), by the end of the day she began pecking their heads when they were trying to eat. I couldn’t take it – I shooed her away. I imagined pecking my recent high school graduate’s head to clarify our new relationship. The mama hen looked a bit confused, as well. She shook her feathers when I told her to shoo, and she didn’t come into the run again until very late. After weeks of worrying and foraging for six, her job was done, and she was a solo bird again.

I am fascinated to see what today brings, since phase two will have to be that each hen figures out where she comes in the flock pecking order. (Where did they all sleep last night? I forgot to check.) One of the bolder little pullets (a young not-yet-laying hen) already forages with the big girls. But the tail-ender of the group doesn’t seem ready for this new stage of things, and was too scared yesterday to even come out from under the coop and into the back yard with her nest-mates. She kept running up to the gate in the fence, and then back under, “panic peeping,” trying to work up the courage to face the world without mom to hide under. Life, as Glennon Doyle Merton writes, is brutiful. (That’s brutal and beautiful.) True enough.

Meanwhile, having two of my human fledglings home is working out great so far  – lots of yard work and house projects are getting done. I am enjoying the extra bodies around the house and the conversations at dinner. My daughter has us watching Game of Thrones. No writing is getting done, but that seems to be my way. When the sun is out, I want to be out there too.

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Bronwyn cuts fire blight from a pear tree with Clorox dipped shears

It’s true that we are paying them for this work (Susan says that’s cheating) but family rates! I told her that I realized I could do this since I saw my neighbor doing it. Since we are still supporting them it all makes a cycle anyway – if they work and we pay them rather than hiring other help, and then have them buy more of their own stuff. (Does that count as pecking heads?) Win-win.

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Oskar pruning the crape myrtles – more light for the vegetable garden

Maybe the mother hen is wiser than I. She knows how to let go, while I cling. In fact, I am a bit more like that tail-ender chick, running back under the coop, peeping for the past rather than run through that gate into the wider world. But the chick can’t go back into the egg. I have only to try advising my young adults to realize that a doink on their heads would be about as effective as any maternal advice on money or jobs – or probably any other subject. They just have to get out here and scratch for themselves.


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Lavender and sage

This morning the black raspberry harvest starts. As I head out into the yard to pick before today’s rain threatens mold to destroy the berries, I am grateful for cycles of life and transitions — and I find I am admiring the bravery of chickens.

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In Accord

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My pool guy and I stood outside one early morning last week, talking about politics and sustainability. (We manage a property next door with a pool.) The absurdity of this situation was not lost on me. There is just nothing sustainable about a swimming pool. Unless you turn it into a fish pond, like my friend Mary. Mary does her research, adding appropriate plants and sub-species, and in a few years that former unused swimming pool will yield many pounds of protein to feed her family. With or without society’s approval, she has made something productive out of what was a waste of resources in her back yard.

Mike the pool guy and I agreed that in order to address the environmental challenges the earth and we face at the current time (dying corals were under discussion), what it will really take is not pontificating pundits and whatever they do, but US making uncomfortable choices every day. Changing the way we do business. How completely can you remove plastic from your life, for instance? Let’s say just plastic trash bags. If you don’t use plastic trash bags, what do you use? How do you manage garbage? Shopping bags are much easier. If you use cloth diapers or menstrual pads, which I have found superior to for the users’ skin, you use a lot of water to clean up. Caring for a special needs young adult I use a great deal of water anyway – and I feel like it’s easier to clean water than to find a home for garbage that won’t ever break down. But maybe this will not always be the case – in a well-run trash-to-power incineration process for example.

But each of these choices take consciousness and trouble. Not doing things just the way we always did. I love the story my brother-in-law Allen told me of Lebanon, which in ancient times was covered with forests. Today you know Lebanon as a desert nation, (map of Lebanon). As I was told the story, ancient people discovered plaster in their soil, and became a huge user and exporter of this product. But the process required heat, which meant fire, and chopping down those trees to fuel an exciting new economy … and centuries of business as usual meant that a woodland area became irreversibly arid. How do you reverse from desert to a forest again? It’s a lot of work, maybe impossible. (Lebanon’s environmental issues today )

Then Mike went on to clean more pools, and I went inside to eat breakfast made up of food trucked in from miles and miles away.


But not all of it. Trucked, I mean. I am working on that. The Simons Gardens are having a good year so far.

As the sour cherry harvest rolls in from our three little trees, and pepper and tomato seedlings go into the soil, and sunburn prickles across my shoulders and back, I pause today and take a minute to rejoice for a good start to this season of growing and harvest. Five little chicks have become so much bigger in the two weeks since you  saw them last –

“Don’t get too close,” says mother hen

The sugar snap peas are producing crunchy deliciousness, thanks to the extended cool weather and rain that is otherwise driving us crazy.  And we have never harvested lettuce and kale like this before, though I sure hope to again.

Several salads-worth, just picked…
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Rinsed to remove unwanted participants…
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Shaken, layered with cloth or paper towel and boxed or bagged in fridge. Yum!

We suburbanites truly can grow a portion of our own food on our 1/4 acre lots. A box of salad greens costs $5-6, and is often partly rotten, since it is trucked from distant California, subsidized by your tax dollars. We can do better – we can eat better. But whether we choose to do so or not depends on so many factors in our crazy busy suburban lives – mostly whether we love to do so or not. Ya gotta wanna, as they say. I say the sour cherries are “rolling in,” but it is fairer to say that I am stealing them from the birds and mold who are trying to eat them up ahead of me.  I got out there each morning last week, sometimes up in the dewy leaves on my ladder, picking for 20 minutes. I pitted them pretty quickly (thanks to with the wonderful German cherry pitting tool my son Scott gave me years ago) and I froze 5 Ziploc-ed quarts so far – best ever!

Graduation cherry pie on the way?

But I last year I missed the cherry harvest altogether – and the black raspberries too. Before I knew it the trees were stripped and those harvests gone. But I wanna! So this year I am attuned to the early signs. I know to change my schedule, and to pick a little every day. The birds and the Maryland mold don’t wait around to give me my turn. The movements of nature will also not wait for us to figure out how to do things better – nature will work as she her laws dictate. And do what she has always done.

It’s up to us to work in accord.

Winter Garlic heads cure in the sunshine. 



Berries and Broodies!

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First Strawberries

Pre-script: I didn’t do yoga as scheduled this morning. I also didn’t clean the house as needed. Instead I got my zen squatting in a corner of the chicken run, watching a mama hen teaching 5 chicks how to scratch down to the dirt, hunting out tiny bugs. If I hold very still then she knows I am not dangerous, and they all carry on as usual. Usual, but amazing at the same time. This is a prequel because when I wrote Spring Broodies, just weeks ago,  I could not know how it would all unfold…

So spring is finally really here in Maryland. Uh, isn’t it? That 80 degree weather in April sealed the deal didn’t it? I don’t think cold weather can zap us again with a near freeze…in May…well, merely 40s. Yikes. What a strange year we have been having.

Looks like the cherry blossoms escaped that last frost (at least in our yard), and see!

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Fruits are coming where blossoms just were. The winter garlic looked good but now it needs to be pulled before it rots in the ground. The asparagus finally came up in that blast of early hot April weather, and finished too soon. No manure on that bed last fall equals skinny stalks this spring. In 2016 the stalks were fat like I had never seen before! For 2017 we got lots of skinny little guys. Lesson: ALWAYS put manure on your asparagus in fall! Especially if its sharing space with strawberries…

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Look at those skinny stalks! Lesson learned. The strawberries love the asparagus bed, enthusiastically expanding, growing huge green leaves. If we feed the bed in fall, maybe the asparagus will get some of the food too…

Here is the re-planted and recovering greens collection, is now nicely fenced to protect from other ransacking greens appreciators —

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HOORAY for this greenhouse structure Edward put up (with help from Oskar)!  Right now it holds agricultural fleece above the lettuce and greens to protect them from that hot weather we had…(can you remember?) It will  stay up year round, covered in plastic sheeting during cold months to extend out lettuce and greens production as far into the winter as we can.  So many of my ideas never achieve reality (I know. I have too many.) It is pretty satisfying to see one up and working.

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But most exciting to my readers will be the Chicken news! Starting late April we seemed to have two broody hens. Two of my hens began staying in two nesting boxes day and night, making those intense little noises that I recognize. When a hen goes broody all her instincts tell her “Stay put and keep those eggs warm and you will be a mother!” A true broody hen plucks feathers off her breast to get skin to egg contact and the 90 plus degrees needed. A good broody will go out only to relieve herself, grab a bite or a sip, and then get back on the nest. Less informed broody hens poop right in the nest. (Read more about broody hens here: The Modern Homestead)

What this means to the suburban grower though is a chance for an adoptive mother to raise a couple new chicks. I did it once before with success. But I don’t have the space for two mamas to raise chicks in the privacy needed — in nature they like to go off alone into the brush or a corner of a big farmyard.  So I discouraged the Golden Maran, and encouraged the Buff Orpington. This wasn’t easy. I moved her three times trying to convince her that the broody box in the little coop was a better place than the nesting boxes with all the other hens. There is no way that a hen can raise chicks safely with the other hens around – they would be attacked by the other hens as interlopers. But most broody hens have about half the required instincts – they don’t isolate themselves. So I did my best. Finally, after some more research online, I moved the warm eggs first to the new location, and then took her, struggling and resisting, to sit on her eggs in the new spot. This time I remembered to close the door, so the other hens couldn’t bother her. And there she stayed.

Three days later, I picked up 5 one day old chicks from a local feed store – and Edward (who kindly accommodated this errand while on his way back from a medical procedure) agreeably held the box in his nice warm hands.

Once home (and my ailing husband settled) I threw the chicks into a warm oven and scurried around setting up a temporary box – we had to wait for night to make the switch.

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Trum would like to play with the chicks…

It was hard not to worry. This night would be the night that the previously warm weather turned cold again!  Fifty degrees — and baby chicks like 90.  That night I carried the box of them out, and by cover of darkness I slid the hot eggs out from under the broody Orpie and slid the panicked, peeping chicks underneath. I had to shove one little guy under twice – she seemed frozen. All the next cold day I didn’t see or hear a peep. But the hen was all puffed up though over top of them. That was hopeful. She looked…surprised.

Next morning I pushed a flat dish of food and then water up close to her chest, and she ate and drank avidly. Prior to the cold snap, the weather had been very hot and she had been brooding for weeks, hardly leaving her nest for food or water.

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Then she pulled away. She wanted me gone. So I went away, hoping that young and inexperienced as she is, her instincts would tell her that those babies need to eat and drink too, somehow, despite the cold.

I shouldn’t have worried.

I have doubted this broody hen every step of the way – doubting whether she could sit a nest, whether she would reject these adopted babies, whether she would know to feed them on a cold day! I have been distressed to find that she wants to sleep on the ground under the structure I built for her, instead of inside it. Even after I made a new ramps for the little chicks yesterday to get up into it, they showed no interest. We tried moving her once, which caused extreme distress to her and her chicks and she hid them in a corner.  But she is proving herself to be a good mother – and she knows better than I do about the whole process. Last night it went down to the 40s again — but I gave up on the idea of moving her into that nice little coop, and just piled pine shavings around her to help her hold her heat. She did not object.

This morning I opened the top of that little coop to get something out, and noticed that the temperature in there was a lot colder than the air temperature in the run outside it. Ahh. I see. That little house was colder than the ground. Being wood, and drafty, it holds heat more poorly.  Yep – I guess she knows.

I have no idea what this upbringing will do for these babies. They are having a pretty au naturel experience compared to most American suburban chicks: enduring cold, sleeping in the dirt under mom, scratching in the straw and mud for breakfast. I threw them some of the strawberry tops this morning, and they were all excited, mama too. I notice that two have paste butt, which isn’t common for chicks raised by a mother – maybe it’s the switch from 24 hours of heat lamp life to Real World cold spring. I am waiting to see if the mama hen will do something about it, or if  I have to intervene causing great panic and distress. These little ones are eating just the right stuff to be healthy. They have very little interest in the Organic Chick Starter feed I put out. (It doesn’t smell good to me either.) Ah well – on to the next adventure!—-




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Snubby the Chicken gives me a Look

Sunday night I sat rocking a chicken on the swinging bench after a busy day and a busy week, feeling guilty. Edward had found her squatting on the run floor that morning, and when we came to remove her from the rest of the flock that night it was obvious that she was on her way out. So I just sat on the swinging bench and looked at the beautiful gardens and the evening sky and rocked her and thought about her life. Then I set her still wrapped in an old towel into the earth, to give her body to improve the soil and nourish a tree.

This chicken had the kind of life that makes a vegan and vegetarians cry.  She was no real breed – a “sex-link” created for high productivity. Her face had been snipped when she was a chick, so she has a funny snubby thing instead of a beak. This meant she was at a disadvantage for keeping herself groomed for vermin, and for pecking up bugs out of the soil. Chickens are de-beaked regularly as a way of stopping them from pecking (injuring, killing) each other when great numbers are confined together. When I bought this batch of young hens from the local Feed Store I was shocked. This happens all the time, but we humans never see it. I complained to the store manager, and of course she never sells any of those now – but there are chickens being snipped every day of the week, and sold somewhere else.

Further trauma was in store for Snubby and the others in her group of six as they adapted to their new home and tried to find their places in the pecking order with my other hens. Then during July and August raccoons found a way into our chicken run, killing chickens night after night before Edward, assisted by Trumbull the dog, discovered their sneaky access point.  (Trum is still always on the lookout, every night…hoping…)

For a while then Snubby the chicken had relative peace. New young hens were added to the flock, and acclimated. She got lice (probably) and got dusted with the flock to relieve her of them. But when she got the yeast imbalance “vent gleet” this winter as most of the flock did, when everybody else overcame the yeast overgrowth, she never did. Her butt was all dirty feathers. She looked more and more poorly lately, and I wasn’t sure what it meant – but I was too busy with spring garden prep, and spring’s craziness to do more than worry and feed and pasture her well. And that wasn’t enough. She lived just one year.

For animals (or humans) to have good resistance to disease, they have to be bred for that. So much of who gets what is in the genes of any animal system, and there is plenty of sloppy breeding, or breeding for productivity, fast over every other trait. But still plenty is in the feeding, and the animal’s life. Stress is a huge factor. The nutrition to useless carbs ratio in their food. Exercise.  Animals will be healthiest eating a diet as close to what they would eat in nature as possible, and having the opportunity to scratch, or wallow or run depending on what their species loves to do. I am sure these words will sound foolish to some. However, if you are eating animals, or eating and drinking what animals generate, the food can only be as good as the level of care those animals receive. Think about that.

Do you eat eggs? Do you eat chicken? Hamburgers?  Most of the animal products you find come from creatures that have been raised in unnatural or cruel situations, in cages, away from the sun, unable to scratch and peck, unable to stretch out, unable to forage in the grass or wallow in the mud — sometimes unable to move.  Mother pigs caged for their whole lives lest they become violent, chickens in caged one on top of another but still producing daily eggs, steer standing in pools of manure, fed corn that causes them stomach pain and sickness, chickens raised in barns so crowded that they cannot move and trample or attack each other, piglets so bored that they bite each other’s tails off in frustration. Essentially, eating those eggs, that pork, that roast chicken, you are eating poison. It is only a matter of time before you or your offspring develop cancers or digestive issues or auto immune illnesses or you name it.

A toxic setting produces toxic products. This should be so obvious to anyone who reflects on production costs: you can never, ever get something good for nothing. But we make ourselves blind, we think only about the dollars we are saving, buying the “sale meat.” We feel in fact virtuous when we save a few dollars. A few cents. We pay many, many dollars for expensive drugs, for expensive surgeries, for vitamins,  for medical care of all kinds to repair the damage when it’s too late — but we don’t make the correlation. Human health = farm animal health. This is not an issue for the wealthy, a shee-shee fruity goofball issue, nor a political attack point.  It is basic science, and basic business, and practical fact. You get out what you put in.

So to you, dear sad ugly funny faced chicken, thanks for opening my eyes to see in the flesh what I had been told was true. Thanks for the eggs you laid for us. Maybe someday the government will stop giving tax dollars away to fatten the pockets of wealthy big corporations, and instead support the small farmers who are doing things right. How can we make better food available to more people? And this is as true for vegetables as it is for meat products – toxic growth processes produce toxic plants. It’s just that vegetables can’t feel pain and misery while waiting for us to figure it out.

“Huh! If she really loved us she’d let us get to that kale again!”  “You said it sister.” “I’m gonna go find me a worm.”

Sustain What?

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This post was almost ready for scheduled posting 4/5 – but illness delayed it. And yesterday the chickens discovered the star of today’s show….they were very pleased with themselves.  Luckily you can always buy more seedlings – and these guys will come back. Like I said about kale – well, read for yourself…

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The way we were

The morning after I studied the Food Pyramid in the doctor’s office, I spent an exhausted day in bed.   After a couple of nights of brutally interrupted sleep  I had to crash. While in bed I read up on Sharon Stronger and her family, and their sustainable life in Texas. Sharon writes the blog Nourishing Days. Her posts are very real (gritty) and also pretty unreal, in the sense that I do not believe they represent a large-scale solution to the question “how to live sustainably.”  Returning to the land as the Strongers have done it is not a model for many modern families – although a fun read.  Reading about their sustainable off-grid adventures satisfies my life-long fantasy about “living off the land.”  As a third grader, I tried making jam from berry pickings without a recipe or any knowledge. As a starry-eyed 12 year old I pitched my mom on the value of getting a chicken in our back yard, only to be wearily rebuffed.  As a young woman I made crazy claims about having a wood stove before I would ever own a microwave. What Sharon is doing is what I thought I always wanted to do.

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Some of the first crop for 2017: kindling from pruning the crape myrtles

And Nourishing Days is a pretty popular blog, so there must be plenty of others  harboring those kind of dreams. Still, modern America is not about to climb off the grid.  There are too many real advantages to what electrical power brings.  Life on the grid has made possible huge advances in science, medicine, and the arts – literature, theater, music – and farming!  In order to live sustainably, Sharon and Stewart Stronger spend all day long, every day, cooking or growing food with their cute kids — or harvesting food — or hunting for food (or water) —or putting up food for later use.  Yikes.  I realized as I read along that I just couldn’t do this. True she also writes blog posts and takes photos, and posts them online. But this life wouldn’t be enough to sustain my spirit.

So as I lay pondering the latest events in the Stronger household and sustainibility, I asked myself this question: “Sustain WHAT exactly?”

Maybe for me, living sustainably means something completely different – or includes something more: sustaining my artist self in the face of constant demands from every quarter to do something else.

Sustain my sanity?

Sustain my health?

IS THERE a way to grow some of you own food as a part of modern suburban life, without renouncing the world, taking on a vow of poverty, or adopting a full blown alternative lifestyle??

This is the question that I have explored for a decade or so now, that still captures my imagination, and is the subject of this blog. I write for all of us who love their day jobs, and running water, and cell phone texting, those like myself whose burdens of care make them reliant ont the machines that do our work – like my wonderful huge washer – but who also feel the call of the soil. Paying big dollars for organic green peppers from California or Mexico doesn’t make sense when delicious organic peppers grow just great in my own east coast yard, for pennies each.  Nor does it make sense to me to pay $6-7 a dozen for organic eggs that don’t taste that great – not even half as good as the eggs from chickens that roam my lawn eating ticks [oh yeah, and savaging baby plants and kicking the mulch off the beds…].

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“Is she talking about us again?”  “Sustainability?? Ha! Why can’t that woman go — scratch up some bugs or something?”


I want to grow some of my own food, I thought, but I don’t want to be consumed by that job. I love the goals of food and energy independence, but also love being part of a larger system of growers whose focused hard work sustains my life. If being “sustainable” means me hand washing all Owen’s bedding in a tub of water each morning…aaacckkk!

But thinking of sustainable leads me to kale. Naturally.  Kale, the ugly duckling of health foods! Here is a plant that is highly nutritious and pretty easy to grow (as long as you keep the bunnies off it) [and chickens] for many months of the year in my climate, particularly if you have a greenhouse structure to extend the season – and tadum!! we do now!

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Nowadays, we use kale at breakfast, sautéd with our bacon and eggs and butter in place of toast. (It’s delicious, as long as you don’t expect it to taste like toast.)  Sometimes we throw it in soups or sauces. Sautéed greens and onions make a great side dish at dinner too.  The point is that growing dark greens and lettuce is feasible, time-wise and space wise, and it’s feasible money wise considering an organically grown  bunch costs $3, and so does a tray of seedlings. Well – feasible money wise if it works. [If I beat the bunnies and chickens to it…] Check back next fall.

To live sustainably – to sustain all the things that need sustaining – is a balancing act. For Sharon Stronger, leaving the grid behind and adopting a slower paced kid-centered life has meant mental health.  For me something a bit different is required. But like so many other subjects, “sustainability” is a nuanced, many layered topic once you get into it, and a conversation worth having.

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WHO Says?

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This is a blog about gardening, growing you own food in a suburban setting. Creating your own food stream. Today we spend a minute or two on the why of gardening, on the larger picture of what we eat, and why, and who says so. It’s all my pediatrician’s fault.

I sat in the pediatrician’s office this week with one of my kids who was getting a physical, looking at the Food Pyramid he has posted on the back of his examination room door.  To educate growing minds, presumably, about how to be healthy, be strong, and live long.

Sigh. In every other way my pediatrician is such a brilliant guy.

The first problem I have with Food Pyramid is that in every version the whole bottom layer, the widest layer, indicating “eat the MOST of this!” is made up of carbohydrates, a completely unnecessary food source. (The body can make glucose from fat, and fat from glucose. Check it out for your self about carbohydrates ) Don’t get me wrong – carbohydrates taste yummy. I love them. Many people can digest starchy veggies like carrots and even potatoes ok without triggering an huge insulin problem. And some number of people can eat the various grass seed heads that become bread, pasta, cakes, cookies without any ill effects. Good for them. But alas,  even though I am not celiac, and am otherwise pretty healthy, meaning that I am not overweight, nor dealing with diabetes, nor dealing with ADD or ADHD, and have none of the auto-immune diseases so common today, I cannot eat grain-based foods without getting sick.  This is just from being intolerant. What does that mean? Although I love to lie to myself about it, grains trigger a host of symptoms, particularly when mixed with sugar, as in pies, breads, bagels, cakes, crackers, doughnuts, pasta etc,etc. Instantly, itchy bumps form at my hairline and behind my ears, in my eyebrows. My ear canals itch and crack open and ooze liquid stuff.  I can get away with a little cheating – I am not celiac – but if  I persist in eating grain based foods for long enough, allergies, colds, and ear infections follow.  If I just have a little bit, I only risk increasing my interest in them – and it is so hard to turn off the carbohydrate machine, once he is aroused.

From 2016

The next problem I have with the FDA and food charts is the amount of influence large corporations seem to have over what is printed on the chart.  For instance, Big Sugar. How is it that sugar on the chart at all, even as “eat sparingly”?  Sugar is an addictive substance (come on, you know this. Do you really need a bunch of research mice to prove it?) Who eats sugar sparingly? Besides, it is now added to most stored-made foods. From lunch meats to pasta sauces to mustard. Even though my ear canals were telling me first, Dr. Lustig and the World Health Organization are there to remind me that sugar is liver-toxic. (Why believe my ears? see for yourself about Dr Lustig, and WHO sugar guidelines)  And then as far as corporate influence goes there’s Big Dairy. Dairy is in the third row on the Pyramid, after vegetables and fruits. In the newest FDA recommendations it has it’s own spot, in your glass:

Current FDA recommended daily allowances diagram

Just speaking personally, I began to claim my health back about a decade ago when I mostly cut out dairy, which I only did in support of one of my children who was on a special diet.  That was when I stopped having seasonal allergies. Wow. If I want to have seasonal allergies again, all I have to do is enjoy dairy in the season. Especially if I combine it with wheat. Believe me, I have tried this. I experimented with grassfed raw dairy to see if that was any better — I am very fond of dairy, much more so than sugar — but nope. Apparently I am not alone in this (Dairy Products, by Dr. Gina Shaw, MD )

On the top of the Food Pyramid is a tiny space for fat and sugar. WE talked about sugar, but why is fat up here, at the top? My best indicator of what I should eat or not eat is how I feel when I do it – that’s the only measure that has ever been any good to me.The fads come and the fads go. I tasted some “low-fat” foods and could tell right away that they would irritate me. All sugars, no fat. I know that I need fat desperately. I notice that I will not over-eat of fat. It stops being appetizing. When you need fat, you know it! When you eat too much straight butter, butter becomes unappealing.  I notice that naturally occurring fats, such as butter on my vegetables, bacon with my green vegetables, avocados and olive oil with salt on my salads tastes SO GOOD!  I have read that the vitamins in greens and broccoli are absorbed best in the presence of fats, because they are fat-soluble vitamins. Vitamins A and D.  This could be true – how would I know? I am not a scientist.  But what I know for sure is that eating dark green with butter or bacon tastes awesome , and makes me feel great. Whereas pancakes with bacon fat makes me feel stuffed and uncomfortable. And Gluten Free crackers with butter don’t hurt me much, but never really satisfy, even if I eat the whole bag…

By now it should be obvious that I have a very crummy digestive system. You may be wondering, what does work, Wystan?  Thanks to the support of my sister Ann (also on a quest for her health), I have discovered some wonderful things. The broth of bones cooked for 24 or more hours, with carrots, onions, garlic, celery, mushrooms, and some meat cubes makes such a delicious stew. Chicken bones cooked overnight, allowed to cool, and then reheated for another day release amazing things from their marrows for a fabulous healing chicken vegetable soup. Awesome with curry!!  Bacon fried up with onions and any kind of greens (kales, mustard greens, collards – each has it’s unique texture and flavor) are nourishing for hours. Greens steamed a minute and touched with butter are delicious, if you find you don’t want bacon. Brussels sprouts chopped are also delicious sauteed with butter or a slice of bacon chopped up with onions. Then there’s fermented foods: one head of chopped Cabbage, pounded with sea salt, stuffed into a mason jar and left alone for four days in the dark makes amazing, buttery sauerkraut. It’s alive with probiotics, and chases away colds, it’s true, but I eat it because it tastes so – yum- well, I don’t know anything that tastes quite like it! Wonderful! Especially if you add some fresh ginger and red pepper flakes.

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Homemade sauerkraut

Vegetables are dah BOMB. But as with any source of food, you need to know how to work magic on the raw ingredients. Years before we began to fry Kale up with butter or bacon and onions, kale I bought would wither in my fridge. It looked so – ugh. Dull. Scratchy! How was I gonna put that weird stuff in my mouth?? Yuk. But steamed in a little water, and touched with butter, and your tongue AND your body tell me YES! You want this stuff!   There is a reason people eat have eaten collards with the ham bone or a piece of fat back for hundreds of years.

This season, I am going to do my best to put my garden where my mouth is – increasing the rows of kale in my garden by about 100%.  🙂 (Like I said, we didn’t use to like kale much.) The temporary greenhouse that we have struggled to finish (it’s getting there!) will be temporary only in the sense that the plastic walls and roof can be rolled up part of the year. It will be a permanent part of growing. In terms of “growing my own” there is nothing we eat more of right now than salads and dark green vegetables, and this simple structure should allow us to keep growing our own well into winter. We’ll see! Always so much to learn – whether it’s tuning in to your body’s messages, or tuning in to what nature has to teach you outside it. When choosing your seeds, listen to what you love to eat, and listen to what your soil and climate want to grow. It’s always a dance.

But as for what the FDA’s Food Pyramid knows that can help you – fahgeddaboutit.

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Using Your Garden: Lavender


Hi dear readers – this is the first of a series of segments that I will thread through my garden and chicken posts, talking about putting the many things that pop up in your garden to USE in your home. After all, how do you know what you want to grow if you don’t have an idea what you would use it for? And so much knowledge of how to use plants (and weeds!) has been lost, in the era of the supermarket. Today’s subject is DRYER SHEETS or more accurately, giving your laundry a nice scent without buying any of those chemically scented thingys.

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I have always felt that it can’t be that difficult to do-it-yourself dryer scent. And since I hate and therefore do not use chemical scents, yet am certainly wifty enough to leave the wet laundry sitting for too long, forgotten and accumulating nasty odors, my towels and sheets could really use some perfume help.  So for years now I’ve been messing around with how to use homegrown lavender.  I tried laying it between sheets or towels (pretty crumbly on re-entry). I tried different kinds of bags,  which always seemed too small to have much impact on a load of wet stuff.

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Plus it was difficult to fill the bags without making more mess, and awkward stuffing lavender into a sack.  And the bags seemed to leak leaves.  Lavender is a fine natural product, but that doesn’t mean your dryer likes it as much as you do. Since it was kind of a pain, I forgot to use it all.

My conclusion: this needs to be more simple, and more effective, to be worth doing. Until today.





Here is solution, result of my many messes:

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Using an old sock, and tying the top, allows a lot of area for the lavender leaves to make contact with the tumbling damp laundry. Tying the top of the sock makes it pretty sure that the plant material will stay inside. And look how easy it is to fill it up! (I just figured this out this morning.)  No mess!!

So, how do you get started? Plant lavender in a sunny location. In summer pick leaves and flowers. (They say pick early morning for greatest potency with all herbs)

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DRYING lavender is easy peasy.  You can simply hang it upside down, out of the sun, in nice dry weather. I throw mine in a dehydrator, since I live in wonderful moist Maryland (ps this is a GREAT product for gardeners, I highly recommend getting a dehydrator, particularly because it is much less scary than the pressure cooker canner (which I also got second hand, am terrified of, and have yet to use)). But if you don’t have a dehydrator, simply place the leaves on parchment, or a paper towel, on a baking sheet and put into the oven at it’s lowest setting (about 170 degrees). A convection oven is ideal, since the circulating air will help – you want to dry the lavender, not cook it. The idea is to preserve the essential oils in the plant. Once the oven is warm, you may even wish to just leave the oven light on. When the plant is crunchy dry, store it in a plastic bag, or a jar (and add some of those little “keep fresh” sacks left over from vitamin bottles etc to help keep the herb dry.)