Thursday, September 25, 2014

We Are Going Underground

I haven’t meant to make you wait on pins and needles. I didn’t mean to take this long to tell you exactly what kind of house we are going to have built next spring. But the truth is, just the prelimaries to construction have had us a bit stressed out, and I think I’ve needed time to process everything and make sure before I announced the specifics about our new house to the world.

Finally, without further ado, here I go (drum roll, please!): next April (tentatively scheduled), Ralph Smoot, his son Conrad, and three other guys are going to spend about a month on our place building an earth-sheltered house.

Yep. That’s it. We’re going underground. Here’s what the guys at Conrad’s Castles do: they come and build the concrete shell, which consists of eight-foot, rectangular walls with a monolithic dome for a roof for each module. We are having two twenty-four square-foot modules built, with a 176 square-foot room on the east side, and another on the north side. These two little extra rooms will enable the house to be buried in more dirt and therefore have greater thermal mass.

Here’s what we do: we get the site excavated ahead of time, then after the shell is built we have to waterproof, put in a floor, and bury the structure. Plus finish out the inside, but that won’t be a big deal.

Why an earth-sheltered house

  • It requires very little energy to heat and cool.
  • It’s fire-proof, bullet-proof and tornado-proof (and hurricane proof, but that’s not an issue in southeast Oklahoma), and during a very windy storm we won’t get nervous.
  • It’s very quiet. You don’t hear outside noises.
  • You can grow food on the roof (the dirt on top ends up being about five feet).
  • It’s so tight that dust takes a long time to accumulate. Ralph says that his wife only has to dust three times a year!
  • It requires much less maintenance than a standard house (no roof to replace, ever!).

“Won’t it be dark?”

The south-facing side is exposed, and we plan to put windows all along the entire forty-eight feet so we will have plenty of light (not to mention passive solar heat in the winter). In addition, the dome roofs, which create a thirteen-foot ceiling, are great at reflecting light. A home built the Conrad’s Castles way needs a third less lighting than a conventionally built house.

“How much will it cost?”

We estimate the entire process – including paying for food and lodging for the workers – will end up costing us around $100,000. I’ll let you know the final count when all is said and done.

Ralph says that an owner who is willing and able to do all the finishing out himself can end up paying $50 per square foot – but that does not include the food and lodging, the excavation, or the burying (which is going to run us around $10K thanks to the rocky soil here).

“Why did you guys ditch the earthbag house idea?”

If you read my former blog, I think I mentioned we were planning to build our own earthbag house. We changed our minds, first of all because we really, really don’t want to do it ourselves. Second, figuring out how to get the right soil to fill the bags turned out to be a logistical nightmare for us, since the native soil here wouldn’t work.

Finally, while an earthbag house (especially the domes we had planned to build) would do somewhat better than a “stick” house as far as moderating the indoor climate, it wouldn’t do nearly as well as an earth-sheltered house. Since we can afford it, we decided the wisest course would be to build the house that we would be happiest with for the rest of our earthly lives.

The size of our new house

A this point in my life, my ideal home would be between 500 and 600 square feet (but try telling that to my twenty-five-year-old self who felt cramped all by herself in a 400 square-foot apartment!). However, according to Ralph, a house in our location would need to be at least 1200 square feet in area in order to maintain a summertime indoor temperature of around 80 degrees. Hit 1700-1800 square feet, and one could maintain a temperature not to exceed the upper seventies.

Although our house is going to be about 1700 square feet, we’ll only be living in 750 square feet. The room on the north side will be a (nice and big!) cool pantry, and the west module it will be attached to will be left open – no rooms, no furniture. It will be a place B can run around in (literally) when weather keeps him cooped up inside, as well as, right next to the windows, a place where I can grow peppers, tomatoes, and greens in the winter. And of course, have a lemon and lime tree, maybe even a banana. I’ll see how much space I end up with.

So, there you have it! Our full disclosure about our new house. I won’t deny that we’re overwhelmed by the whole process, but by this time next year I believe we’ll realize that it was worth it.

Thanks for reading!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Lessons I Learned From My First Big Garden

As I promised in my post about my garden successes and failures this year, here I tell you about the lessons I learned from my first big garden. It was a year of gardening experiments, and every thing I tried taught me a useful lesson. So, here we go.

1. Ruth Stout’s method doesn’t always work.

Ruth Stout was a gardener who, back in the 1960s (perhaps a bit earlier), stumbled onto organic gardening without ever having read about it. She just began to question the need to pour all those toxic chemicals all over her garden, and into the soil. By the 70’s, she had written several articles about her newfound method in Organic Gardening magazine, and subsequently had a few books published.

Her method in a nutshell: mulch, and lots of it. She specifically recommended, and used, spoiled hay. She even said that she never had to water during a two- to three-month drought. She just had to water everything well at the beginning of the growing season, and then cover everything with several inches to a foot (even more) of hay. She had few pest problems, abundant crops, and only put a little bit of cottonseed fertilizer down once a season.

That sounded great to me, so last fall we bought six very large bales of hay and spread them over the garden. Did it work?

Not as well as I liked. I still ended up with tons of squash bugs (welcome to gardening in the South – Ruth Stout lived in Connecticut). I did have a lot of production without fertilizing. But I also ended up with a ton of grass and weeds growing in my garden that wouldn’t have otherwise shown up – they were from seeds in the hay.

Worst of all, I found out that however hot it gets in Connecticut during their so-called drought, it must not come close to what we have in the Deep South. This year, God helped me out by sending rain about once a week – an unusual frequency for this part of the country during the summer. So for a long time, I couldn’t really tell if the hay was composting quickly enough to continually add moisture to the soil and therefore eliminate all irrigation needs.

But during the last two weeks of August, summer decided to show up. It was consistently in the mid-nineties and above, and didn’t rain for over two weeks.

And my garden got sad. The soil got dry. The hay was not enough.

HOWEVER…maybe I needed a few more inches of hay around the base of each plant?

I don’t know. Obviously, I’m not going to remove the existing hay in my garden. I’m going to let it turn into nice, rich compost. But from now on, I’m going to source mulch from our property, from grass and weeds that have not gone to seed.

And during a normal summer, I will plan to water by hand.

Which leads me to my next lesson…

2. We need an additional source of water for irrigation.

I’d thought that the two fifty-gallon rain barrels would be sufficient for supplemental irrigation during the summer. But since the hay isn’t doing as well as I’d hoped (and as Ruth Stout implicitly promised), I told J we’re going to need a small pond to catch a few hundred more gallons of water.

3. Solar dehydration is not a reliable food preservation method here.

It’s too humid much of the time. Need I say more? 

4. Fifteen tomato plants is more than enough.

I had thirty this year, and had many more tomatoes rot on the vine than I could use. Of course, without an electric dehydrator or freeze-drying system, or the space to store multiple jars of canned tomatoes (until we have a bigger house), I couldn’t put up a lot of them. Then there were the plants themselves – I had to do some serious pruning several times because they grew all over everywhere.

Fifteen vigorously-growing plants is plenty to keep us in fresh tomatoes during the summer, as well as provide us with enough dehydrated and canned for things like ketchup and tomato soup on a cold winter day.

5. I need to plant only two melon plants, and then one month apart.

We ended up with four plants. WAY too many for three people. And by planting one a month after the other, I spread out the harvest so we’re not literally watching them rot on the vine because we can’t eat them.

6. I shouldn’t plant warm-weather crops here until May 1.

I know, I know, we had an unusually cold winter. But I work hard to grow my seedlings. I don’t want to risk them. And because my garden is so large, it would take a lot of work to cover and uncover them in the event of a frost.

7. Two cucumber plants, put in a month apart, is more than sufficient.

See number five. And Beit Alpha fruits are superior to Yamato Extra Long, however prolific the Yamatos are. The Yamatos turn bitter four to six weeks after they start producing. They are also not “burpless”, like the Beit Alphas.

8. I need to spray the cukes for powdery mildew.

I’m happy to say that I can do this with diluted el-cheapo milk, nothing that will bother the bees or anything else. But diluted milk is said to keep fungus off of plants, so I’m going to try it next year to keep my plants healthier longer.

9. Don’t use twine for trellising.

J had more important things to do this spring than build me nice, firm trellises. He did put cedar posts in the garden for my blackberries, tomatoes, and cucumbers, but I said I’d take care of the climbing medium.

I used old-fashioned twine. Not nylon, the natural stuff. They didn’t even last a month.

The next time we go to Lowes, we’re getting livestock fencing to replace the twine.

I’m sure there are a few other lessons I learned this year, but those are the major ones. If you are thinking about gardening, feel free to live vicariously through my experiences and make fewer mistakes. ;)

Take care, and be well!  (And don't forget to follow/share this blog if you like the content! :) )

Thursday, September 11, 2014

How Did My Garden Grow?

As the average first frost date for our location is less than two months away, I thought this would be a good time to tell you how the biggest garden – 1600 square feet – I’ve ever had has fared this summer. I’ll keep the berries, since they are perennial and generally do well, out of the picture and focus on the rest.


1. Peas: As we had a cooler than usual spring, and the warm weather took longer than usual to get here, we got more peas than ever before for a spring planting. Not a huge amount – I didn’t plant that many – but enough to give several salads a nice, sweet crunch. They do better in the autumn here, however.

1. Green beans: Green beans prefer warmth, but not the heat of Deep South summers. But because the 90+degree F weather was so long in coming this spring and summer, I harvested – and we ate – an unprecedented amount of beans. They kept growing flowers, which became beans, then more flowers, which became more beans. I didn’t even have that many plants, maybe sixteen or so?

3. Okra: I quit harvesting them, because none of us like them that well, and they make such a sticky mess both to cut them off the plant and to slice them up. That’s not to mention how the leaves make me itch, worse than green bean leaves!

I am not going to grow okra anymore, unless I want to grow one or two plants for fun in front of the house just for the beauty of the flowers. Nevertheless, I have harvested, sliced, and dehydrated a good many of that Southern fruit. Now, dozens of fruit continue to grow.

4. Chinese long beans: I also have a good bit of dehydrated Chinese long beans. During the winter, I plan to once in a while sauté these with some okra slices – after rehydrating both. But I’m not sure I’m going to grow this veggie again, either. They don’t taste very much like green beans, their flavor being much stronger. The flowers, however, are beautiful, and the purple beans can grow to over a foot and a half long.

6. Tomatoes: I haven’t been able to keep up with them, having planted thirty plants donated to us by a neighbor back in May. I dehydrated them for awhile, but now we just eat fresh when we want, and I fix a tomato soup a couple times a week. It’s sad all the fruit that is rotting on the vine, but I’m not going to can, and it’s gotten too humid to dehydrate via the power of the sun.

7. Cucumbers: So successful that I’ve cut down three of the four plants I started with! Actually, three were a variety called Yamato Extra Long, and once the plants developed powdery mildew the fruit all turned out bitter.

Next year I will spray Plant Wash to keep the mildew away. This year I was too stressed out by all the adjusting my family has had to make in this new lifestyle, not to mention frequently lethargic thanks to the very humid summer. So I didn’t want to do anything extra, like spray.

8. Watermelon: Well, this was semi-successful. Eventually, the plant developed a disease that caused malformations and under-ripening of fruit. I finally tore it out, but nobody cared. I discovered I can’t eat it without experiencing overly soft stools and cramping the next day, so I’m not going to eat it anymore. J got sick of it, and B never liked dealing with all the seeds.

9. Crenshaw melon: We’ve had a few duds lately, but up until then this cantaloupe-like fruit (bigger and sweeter) has produced enough so that we saw a noticeable decrease in our food expenditure for about a month. There are still a few fruit that look like they are going to ripen well, but I think that will be the end of it – it seems to have developed a disease, as well.

10. New Zealand spinach: Growing a watermelon and the NZ spinach proved to me that sandy soil is better than the clay soil I used to have to deal with. Watermelon wouldn’t grow for me at all in North Texas, and it would take at least two years for a New Zealand plant to grow as big as the four plants I got in the garden this year became.

11. Red malabar spinach: A no-brainer for hot climates. While two of the four original plants succumbed to rotting due to the mud underneath the hay (I’ll talk about that in a later post), the two that survived went crazy and covered a cedar post that is part of the trellis.

12. Lettuce: I should have put this at the beginning! Since I was unable to start plants this year, and the freezing weather took forever to end, I ended up buying starts from the hardware store. It felt like forever before they were big enough to pick from, but once they were, I was able to stop buying lettuce for a good two months. I ended up with eleven plants, consisting of both leaf and Romaine types.


1. All the brassicas – kale, broccoli, cabbage. I had a hard time getting them started from seed (like I would leave the trays of seeds in the rain and end up with a flooded muddy mess), and those I seeded in the ground didn’t fare much better because we didn’t have a lot of water in our tanks back then and I refused to use what precious little we had to water seeds.

So by the time the few that came up, came up, it was too hot for them.

2. Other greens: Flea beetles attacked the beet greens. I did manage to get a couple servings of collard greens, but since they developed aphids much sooner than they ever had in Texas, I consider them a failure. Only three spinach ever germinated, due to my not watering the seeds. And it was too late by then – I got a few leaves a couple of times, and then the plants went to seed.

3. Jalapeno peppers: I had one out of six plants ever produce anything for me. The fruit have been small and pathetic, though they taste okay.

4. Bell peppers: Did even worse than the hot. The one pepper that grew began to rot when it was almost all red. The plants have new buds and flowers on them once again, and look as healthy as they ever have (I thought they were all going to die in May – leaves were turning yellow and falling off so that the plants looked skeletal), but I’m not going to hold my breath.

I figured out that peppers do not like a lot of water and cool weather, hot or bell. The reason this new batch of flowers may produce something is that we’ve finally had a couple of weeks without rain.

5. Amarillo carrots: This is a variety of carrot that can be grown in the summer. But every time the greens would pop out of the ground, the darn pill bugs would eat them up! I decided growing carrots the old-fashioned way, in cool weather, is the way I’ll have to go.

In a couple of weeks, I’ll post about the gardening lessons I learned this year. In a couple of months, I’ll let you know whether the bell peppers ever did anything, and how the sweet potatoes turned out. If all the slips that turned into vines bore the amount of potatoes they are supposed to, we will end up with about 100 pounds of potatoes!

However, I’m not sure how well the roots will have developed in the rocky soil. I may have to build a raised bed to successfully produce sweet potatoes.

Thanks for reading this post, and stay tuned for more! :)

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Good-Bye, Outlines

Years ago, I was reading a book about writing wherein the various methodologies of various authors were expounded. That is to say, the author of the book was quoting how different authors write stories. One of the authors stated that she never wrote up an outline ahead of time, just went with the flow and let the story write itself.

I cringed. That sounded disorganized to me. I needed to know the beginning, middle, and end of my novel before I wrote it. And so that’s how I’ve operated ever since.

Until recently. A few weeks ago, I wrote on this blog that one of the reasons I hadn’t been writing much on the blog was that I was working on a novel outline. True confession time: I couldn’t make the story turn out the way I wanted. Mainly, I couldn’t figure out the middle of the story.

I got frustrated.

Then one day J was reading to B – at B’s request, mind you – the editorial comments Bill Watterson wrote in one of his  compilation books about his renowned comic strip, “Calvin And Hobbes.” As J was reading, one particular comment made me perk up my ears. Watterson basically said that he liked to take a story and just go with it, letting it write itself, rather than plan it out ahead of time.

Hmmm. I quit outlining the story. Frankly, I set that novel aside for a time, believing I wasn’t quite prepared to turn it into the masterpiece I wanted it to be. And I started a new one.

Without an outline.

Okay, truth be told, when I first embarked upon the new project I was still not convinced of the wisdom of Watterson’s words, still didn’t think that kind of “free-for-all” writing was for me. So I tried to outline it at first.

And it just wouldn’t work.

I almost gave up on the story. Then I thought about that book about writing. About Bill Watterson’s comment.

I turned on my NEO2, and started typing away.

I am more than halfway through, and am thrilled with the results! Sure, I get stuck sometimes – but I did when I was using outlines, too. But I am convinced that the story is much more interesting than it would have been had I written a prior outline, and then stuck to that outline. The characters tell me where to go in each chapter, how to increase tension and suspense; and these events, working in tandem with the characters, guide me into each subsequent chapter.

With non-fiction books, an outline is almost an imperative. But not with storytelling. I’m having fun!

Gee, maybe not trying to have complete control over my life might be more fun, too. I’ll have to give that some serious thought.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Cell Phones Are SO Dangerous!

We have a cell phone instead of a landline for one reason, and one reason only: we want the flexibility of a cell phone, and don’t want to pay for two services. We don’t have a data plan, and our monthly call minutes are limited. We don’t do a whole lot of talking on the phone, as my mother and any of my friends can attest. ;)

But I don’t like cell phones. They are unhealthy. They emit radiation, smart phones being by far the worst culprits in this arena. That radiation, if you don’t use a device to protect yourself from it, goes straight into your brain.

Yet the average American scoffs at such information, claiming that the fact that brain tumor incidences are rising – and that those tumors usually happen to be on people who talk on cell phones all day long, and that those tumors usually show up on the same side that the person always holds the cell phone – are all coincidences.

Typical head-in-the-sand American attitude. Convenience and instant gratification trump health and well-being every time.

Well, then, explain the recent case of a teenage girl who went to sleep with her cell phone (likely a smart phone) on her pillow - AND WOKE UP WITH HER PILLOW ON FIRE! Seriously, that’s how hot the radiation and electricity make a phone? Are you going to continue to deny the fact that cell phones are bad for your health?

Monday, August 25, 2014

On Deciding Not To Raise Livestock

When you hear the word “homesteading,” like as not you get a picture of your head that includes a chicken coop, cows or goats in a pen, and perhaps a pig or two wandering around the yard. Many homesteaders do, in fact, keep some small livestock so that they can be self-sufficient in animal protein.

We have decided – tentatively, of course; life is a journey and we may change our minds down the road – not to do this. Why?

1. Animals require constant care.

They need to be fed and watered every day. Nanny goats and dairy cows need to be milked. What if we want to get in the car and go on a one- to two-week road trip? We’d have to beg a neighbor or acquaintance from town to come by every day and take care of them. Even finding reliable people who would do this for pay is difficult.

Especially with a young child who is full of curiosity and wonder, we don’t want to be tied down to our place 24/7/365.

2. Animals can get expensive.

I don’t care how “self-sufficient” a particular breed of hen is said to be, she will have no chance to prove this character if she is eaten up by an eagle, mountain lion, or coyote. Around here, to have free-range chickens would require at least a couple of well-trained dogs. Dogs cost money to feed and maintain. The other option is to either keep them in a well-protected run, or a chicken tractor. And of course you need a coop. These things require extra money, as well as time and work to maintain them.

And if you’re on raw land like we are, you have to put out quite a chunk of change to buy fencing for larger livestock, like cows and goats – not to mention a place to shelter them. It could take a while to recoup your investment in milk and cheese.

3. Neither one of us wants to butcher.

If all you have are laying hens, this isn’t an issue. But numbers one and two apply to them. My most recent idea was to raise quail for meat. If I would die without doing this, I could. However, I don’t want to kill a living thing larger than a wasp. I just don’t.

J is even worse. He’s an animal lover.

4. Everything else we’re doing already takes a lot of time.

I’m not going to lie and say we wouldn’t have time to milk goats or grow fodder for chickens in the winter if we had them. But having been on our homestead for seven months, we’ve discovered that we keep quite busy without having to take care of animals to boot.

We have almost five acres of forest to manage, a large garden to care for during the warm months (and a smaller one during the cold months), an active boy to raise and educate, various chores to complete throughout the day, (within a couple of years) an orchard to monitor and maintain  - Let me give it to you straight. God has not called us to be full-time homesteaders. To live simply, yes. To go off-grid with water and reduce our electricity usage, yes. But we didn’t move out here so that we would spend eight hours a day caring for critters. There are other things we’d rather do with our time. Other things God has called us to do.

5. We can be healthy without eating meat and eggs several times a week.

Sorry, you Paleo/high-protein diet fanatic, you. The key to good nutrition is in reducing grain consumption, avoiding processed foods (which grains, even a whole-grain porridge, basically are), and making sure you’re getting the right amount of fat-soluble vitamins, plus vitamin C, via nutrient-dense whole foods – and supplements, when necessary. 

Oh, wait. I heard that. I heard somebody say, “But if you eat a high-meat diet, you’ll never need to supplement. You’ll get all the nutrients you need.”

Okay. Now show me the double-blind completely unbiased scientific experiment that has been repeated at least twenty times with at least a thousand random people in each study that proves your assertion.
(I’ll give you a hint: nobody in the nutrition world has ever made any such study – if for no other reason than unbiased nutritional studies are as rare as walruses in Africa.)

My point is, you don't need two to three servings of animal product every day in order to get the nutrition your body needs.

6. Animals need water.

A lot of water, in the summer (recall that we live in southeast Oklahoma). We are off-grid for water. We do not have a well (too expensive and complicated with too many potential things to go wrong), do not have  a pond. We catch our water in two large rain tanks.

Enough for the three of us. Not for animals.

7. Somebody out there is praying that we will buy their product.

We have the money to buy milk, cheese, and – when we want them – eggs and meat. Thousands of full-timers around the country are struggling to make an income by selling their goods. If we have the money, and they have the goods, why should we bust our butts trying to do something we’re not really excited about doing, when other people are counting on us to buy from them?

Not only that, but also there is the efficiency aspect. While discussing this whole issue with me, J brought out the fact that creating an infrastructure for raising any kind of animal, large or small, is very inefficient for a family our size – unless we are going to raise enough so that we can sell some of the resulting product.
No way.

8. We are heading toward a mostly, if not exclusively, vegan diet.

More on that later, and our apologies to those full-timers mentioned in number seven who may not be able to count on us as customers anymore.

Not all homesteaders raise livestock, and we have decided to join that clan. It’s going to make life a lot simpler, and give us more freedom.

P.S. – Bees we will do. They can feed and water themselves just fine, thank you very much. ;) 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Slowing Down

I am slowing down.

One of the main reasons we worked so hard to obtain early financial independence (click here for info about my book that teaches you how to do that) was so that we would be able to stop stressing ourselves out, trying to make money. So we wouldn’t have to work so hard.

One of the reasons we moved to southeast Oklahoma was to be surrounded by beauty. And not having to work for other people, we should have a lot of time to enjoy that beauty.

But I have to be honest: when you grow up poor, then struggle on a teacher’s salary for over a decade, then “play at being poor” (a quote from the British classic, The Railway Children) for several years in order to have more money to stow away in financial investments, it’s hard to get out of the work-for-money-or-die mentality. And so I’ve been stressing myself out the past couple of weeks writing ten pages a day in my latest novel – this after I had declared to J that if writing became not fun, I wouldn’t do it.

As a result, I’ve been ignoring B, getting irritable from having to fight to find time to write that much every day (gardening is taking a lot of time these days), ditto from having to find PEACE AND QUIET during my writing times, and getting sick of the story. Not much fun in all that, is there?

So I’ve decided to slow down. Four pages a day will still allow me to publish four novels a year – if I decide to write every day and never take a vacation. But until B becomes more independent, I may keep my number of novels down to one or two a year. We shall see.

In the meantime, I am already happier about my decision, and hope to see J and B grow happier as an outgrowth of my chilling out.

I am now almost half done with my latest novel, so you can anticipate its publication between mid-October to early November (2014).

In the meantime, allow me to recommend a couple of fiction books I have enjoyed recently: How Sweet The Sound by Amy Sorrells (intense at times – one of the plot lines is a woman’s recovery from rape), and Courting Cate by Leslie Gould (an Amish romance).

Happy reading!