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A Moment of Sustainable Zen

There are many forms of sustainable living; from apartments in the urban setting to full on, off the grid homesteading. No matter what level and form of sustainability you practice there is work involved. The benefits of that work well outweigh any negative aspects. Some important things to keep in mind when moving toward a sustainable life are; you can only do so much in one day, sustainable living is a journey not a destination, and a sustainable life is a balanced life.

You can only do so much in one day. It is tempting to work as hard and as fast as you can while working toward a sustainable living situation. Many of us make greener choices initially to improve our health and then promptly forget to engage in an activity that is crucial to your health, rest. It is best to set some boundaries for your work day. We wrap up our outside chores before the sun starts to set and we lessen the workload on Sunday’s. The labor intensive work of farming and gardening can and will, break your body down over time if you do not plan ahead. Pace your work day with breaks and implement proper tools to lighten the load of manual labor. If it is going to hurt you to lift something, don’t lift it. While farm work can get you in really good shape it can also send you to the chiropractor. It took such a trip for me to come to an epiphany. A hearty amount of common sense is necessary when you are leading an independent lifestyle.

A sustainable lifestyle is more about the journey than the destination. We were more than a year into building our farm when we finally realized that we will never get everything done. As soon as we understood the unfinished nature of a sustainable life we began to appreciate each day’s tasks for their independent value. This mindset has transferred to other areas of lives. The ability to enjoy each task and each moment of the day without the anxiety of gain has opened a much wider doorway to our ability to be truly happy. There will always be things to do, more to improve, new skills to learn; and there is an enduring beauty in that way of thinking.

While hard work is crucial to the success of your sustainable ventures; the necessity of balancing it out with fun will keep you invested in your bigger goals. Being creative in a way that is enjoyable to you is a wonderful way to break up the monotony of farm labor and it is good for your state of mind.

Sometimes I just walk the farm and enjoy watching the animals. Each of our animals has as diverse of a personality as the people on our farm and they are all very entertaining.  Fun time is especially important if you are teaching your children how to be sustainable. A sure way to make your children not want to live sustainably is all work and no play. Your chores can be fun; but, sometimes you just need to have fun for fun’s sake.  

Starting Seeds in a Greenhouse for Organic Gardening

Starting your own seeds is a wonderful way to ensure that your plants are grown by the methods you think are best and is also a much more cost effective form of gardening. Plants can be grown in a variety of different places; you do not necessarily need to have a greenhouse. And you also do not need to have expensive greenhouse equipment to grow good food. Your plants will need some extra care with their environment no matter where you choose to keep them. Other than the basics of what a growing plant needs to thrive there are endless possibilities of seed starting methods out there and likely some you will create on your own.
Cost
Cost is always a factor in gardening. If you don’t monitor your expenditures you can find yourself spending more than you would at the Farmer’s Market. Your initial costs will be higher than successive years, because of the set up. When trying new things like different pots or seed be sure to start small in case it does not work out.
Seeds
Saving seed is an easy way to be cost effective; of course the first year you will need to purchase your seed. If you know others who garden they may be willing to share seed with you saving you from buying so much seed. People who save seed usually have more than they can plant. There are also seed companies that do seed exchanges and offer free seed like Seed Savers Exchange, many local libraries, extension offices, and community centers. There are numerous community resources if you know where to look. If you plan on saving seeds you will want to purchase seed that is organic and heirloom for the most successful plants. Some seed from hybrid plants will sometimes not germinate; and the ones that do will not be the same as the parent plant causing unpredictability in your harvest. I usually purchase non genetically modified seeds just for the fact that I know what they are and how they will affect our bodies. In my opinion there has not been enough research done on GMO’s to know the long term effects. It is also a good idea to seek out seed that is open pollinated.
Temperature
Temperatures for the plants must stay above freezing and below 80 degrees and they will need some air to prevent mold. If you start your plants later you may want to provide them with additional heat. We do not use additional heat unless there is going to be freezing temperatures. In the instance of a freeze we heat the greenhouse with a small, low heat, propane burner. Some people use passive solar heat by placing buckets of water in the greenhouse to heat during the sunlit hours; however, I found that open water in my greenhouse resulted in an early mosquito infestation. You can use heating pads under your plants to promote early sprouting; but, you have to be cautious about heating them too much and drying them out. I love to work in the greenhouse so my seeds get started fairly early.

Containers
When we first started growing plants I used whatever containers I had to start my seeds in. Every yogurt cup, plastic container, or pop bottle bottoms at the house or other people’s house I could scrounge was filled with dirt and seeds. While on this glamorous garbage crusade, I gained a sense of what was going to work and what was not. Most plants do not need very much space to start; with the exception of tomatoes. Tomatoes need to stay indoors for longer than other plants so they need more root room. Containers that are more than two inches all the way around are going to be adequate for most plants and three inches for tomatoes. Be sure your containers have holes in the bottom for water to drain through.
As I started to plant more, having better pots seemed to be a logical next step. I experimented with peat pots some because they seemed to be a good natural option. They were a disaster. My plants did not thrive in the peat pots because they do not hold water very well allowing the plants to dry out more quickly and the pots are not very stable if you need to move them. Peat pots do not dissolve well in compost so their disposal is also an issue. We try not to purchase plastic if at all possible; however, this year I made an exception for good plant pots. I shopped around and found a company in the United States that makes pots out of recycled material. The pots are durable enough to last many seasons lessening the impact on our environment. And the pots were not very expensive.
I use masking tape and permanent markers to label each plant. While this seems like a time waster, I have found it to be effective in monitoring my plants. Sometimes you will need to move plants around. When I have seeds that do not sprout I empty the pots so I am not wasting fertilizer on empty dirt. Having each pot labeled is very useful in relocation or if you have too many plants and want to share them with friends.


Soil
Most people who grow their own plants use sterilized potting soil. Like everything else in my life I feel the need to fight the tide of normalcy. We use organic material and peat from our woods to seed our plants in. I have several spots on the farm where an old tree has fallen years before my time and I will dig out under the tree scooping up all of the rich dirt and rotten tree bits.
The disadvantages of digging out your own soil are only two things by my thinking. The living dirt will have weeds in it. I don’t mind the trade off; I just have gotten good at recognizing what our weed seedlings look like and am religious about putting my chosen seeds in the center of the pots. Another disadvantage is a small amount of extra work digging. I have come to think of the digging in the same way that I think about all of our farm work…it saves me money in gym membership. We try to be smart about doing manual labor by using the right tools and not overdoing it; the work will always be there tomorrow and it will never really be finished. You have to come to peace with that or go crazy.
The advantages of digging out your own soil are overwhelming. The cost of seeding several plants can rack up quickly. Dirt you get from your own place is free. The satisfaction of knowing what is in your dirt can only happen when you know for sure where it came from and what has been put on it. Purchased potting soil can have all kinds of additives and it is packaged in plastic; and we all know plastic is not environmentally friendly.
Another enormous advantage is that my soil comes with mycorrhizal fungi already in it. Mycorrhizal fungi is a symbiotic fungus that protects plants from disease and gives them the ability to better absorb nutrients from the soil. You can purchase this fungus to put in with your soil; but, why when it already exists naturally. Using dirt for seedlings from the same area that they will be transplanted to creates less issues with root shock. To make the collection of my soil a little more muscle friendly we purchased a garden trailer for the 4 wheeler. That trailer has been one of my most effective farm purchases. I use it for so many things and it is a fun mode of transportation.

Fertalizer
Fertilizer is something I do purchase for my seedling; although, there are other options such as making your own fertilizer. We do use our own compost and animal dung for fertilizing outside. I have found liquid fish fertilizer to be the most effective for young plants. It smells incredibly bad so usually I do all of my other work in the greenhouse and then I fertilize and run out of the greenhouse. The smell mostly subsides after a few hours. After sprouting I typically fertilize once a week.
Hardening
If you have a very enclosed and warm place that you keep your plants you will need to get them used to the outdoors. This is called hardening the plants. Basically you expose the plants to the outdoors in larger increments of time over the period of a week and you start to water them less to simulate their outside conditions. Start the first day with a partially sunny location for a few hours and increase until you are leaving them out at night as well. When the week of hardening is up your baby plants are ready to be on their own.
Helpful Websites
http://www.seedsavers.org/csrp – Seed Savers Exchange is a non profit seed library

Buying an Old Farm

If you are purchasing property to live sustainably there are many things to consider. If you are moving to an entirely new location be sure you can adapt to the weather and have the knowledge to grow food in your climate. For example, even moving from the Northwest to Kentucky I had to completely relearn how to grow a simple vegetable garden. Everything grows good in Kentucky; including the weeds and bugs. Other things to consider is how much financial resources do you have to spread across property, home, and moving toward a sustainable food and energy system. We purchased an old family farm without going through the bank. It is always best to try to avoid institutions that charge interest; you will end up paying for your home twice. There was already a home established; however, that home was in serious disrepair and is over 100 years old. There was a yearlong conversation that went on between my husband and I over whether we should keep and fix up the old place or tear it down. Sentimentality got the best of us and we still sometimes engage in the “what if we had torn down the old house conversation.” We ended up tearing down the back half of the house and building a new bigger addition that would accommodate our large family. Much to my husband’s dismay nothing in a 100-year-old house is square; but, everything has character. Of the part that we preserved one half has a poured basement. You can see the layers where the original builders must have hand mixed, formed, and poured as they went. At that time, they would have brought in concrete mix and tools by horse and wagon in this part of the country; I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been. My youngest son and I gently scrubbed the basement floor and walls and applied sealing paint. It is a wonderful place to store my canned goods where it is dark and cool.

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I have herd numerous stories about this house from neighbors and family about the people who grew and lived on this farm. This house has a life of its own and I am glad we chose to keep the story going; this helps to think about when remodeling and new construction has to be altered to fit the old part of our home. This is what it looked like after we tore down the back half. We spent the better part of a year tearing down the old part and getting set up to build.

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While we were getting ready to build we had moved into a very small house in town so we could be close to work, school, and the farm. All six of us piled into a tiny house for two years. The prospect of open spaces on the farm was what got us through all of our intense bonding moments. WP_20141018_005

Our daily routines during the week entailed getting up early, piling in the car for school, the kids learning and me teaching all day, after school sports and activities; and then on to the farm to work. The interests of our children have pulled us in five different directions. After school activities ranged from ROTC, to football, to soccer, to karate, to academic team, and so many more just while we were commuting back and forth to work, school, and farm. I would sometimes not even change out of my teacher clothes to build. Sometimes I would go to work the next day with sawdust in my shoes and pockets.

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While we were working on the house and farm our oldest son moved out and got engaged. Our oldest daughter graduated, joined the military, got married, and moved to Germany. We tried to build up some animals on the farm as we were building as we could. It has taken us this three years to get a few cows, goats, and chickens. We have grown a garden every year; but, it has taken up until this year to actually have  a good garden.

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To get construction started James built and sold two bikes and we have scrimped and saved along the way to be able to pay for the construction in cash. So far the septic and roughed in wiring are the only things that we have contracted out for and only because it would have costed us more money to do it ourselves than it was worth. We have learned along the way from the many family members and neighbors in our community that build. Up until building this house, the biggest thing we had ever built was a chicken house. Soon into the project James had to have knee surgery. The kids and I just kept going. At one point James was sitting on the blocks of our footer with his knee propped up and digging with a short shovel.

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There has been steady progress since we began this venture despite all sorts of setbacks. The footer seemed to take the longest amount of time. Once that was finished and we set the subfloor it seemed that all of a sudden we had a livable structure. That whole summer we camped out on our farm. We washed in the spring, cooked outside, and had bonfires every night. I liked it so much that we are building an outdoor kitchen and have plans for an outdoor shower.

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You can see in this photo the back wall to the old part of the house. We decided to keep that wall as it was rather than covering it up. Some of the boards that were used to box this old home are so wide that I can only imagine the very large trees that would have been cut down by hand and sawed for building. We have used all of the reclaimable scrap from the teardown. The lumber went to build a chicken house and for barn repairs. Some of the tin from the roof was cleaned, shellacked, and used for wall covering on the inside of the new addition.

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As we were building we constantly looked for good deals on materials. Creigs List is a wonderful resource for cheap building materials. Outlet suppliers and sometimes just being brave enough to ask what stores have in the back that is slightly damaged or asking for discounts can also assist the rapid lightening of your pocketbook that building will cause. We found some very inexpensive maple and cedar at a local saw mill. James was able to plane the boards and put them up in our utility room. It took so long to put it up that we decided not to do it in the rest of the house; a decision that I admit I am sad over because it is so beautiful.

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For our wood stove pad I went on the hunt for field stone, its what we grow best in Kentucky, and laid my first stone work. Our small son, his uncle, and James mixed my mortar as we went. I have not sealed it yet; but it has proven to be very tough which is a plus when you have a brood of rowdy children. It took a day to build and will hopefully take a century to fall apart.

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We are now three years into building our home and farm including the year of cleaning and tearing down. While we are no where near finished with building, and I suspect we will never really be done, building slow and paying for it as we go has been emotionally and financially rewarding. When I walk into my kid’s rooms and look at the floors and wainscoting I think, “I installed that  myself.” It is a heady sense of empowerment to build and create with your own hands.

Welcome

Welcome to our blog. We are a non-commercial farm that is moving toward being sustainable and off the grid on a limited income. Our goal is to live well not to live wealthy because they are not the same thing. Our home is over 100 years old and the farm has been in use for most of those years and likely years before that. We grow all of our crops without pesticides on land that needs healing from the years of abuse at the hands of “progress” that swept Appalachia decades ago. Our animals are humanely treated and have plenty of room to roam. Our children work along side of us and learn with us. What we lack in leisure we have gained in health and satisfaction. We hope to contribute to the vast amount of knowledge out there about living independently while knowing we are just scraping the surface.

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