Sunday, November 28, 2010

Cleaning Up Our Act

Returning to laundry basics

We’ve been hanging our laundry to dry for about a year now.  I love the way it smells and even the act of hanging the laundry and gathering and folding it is a relaxing task I look forward to. Hanging laundry forces me to slow down and enjoy a simple pleasure while being more thoughtful about our use of energy. Honestly, it makes me feel good every time I do our wash. 

We still have a dryer and, yes, it is used on occasion, but very rarely any more. We just don’t have the need. One thing that has made this change possible for us is our wonderful screened in porch. Hanging laundry each week would not be nearly as easy if we had to depend on the weather. After all, everyone who lives in this house works full time and has a very busy schedule. Weekends are the time for us to tidy the house, do laundry, gather groceries, work around the yard and hopefully find a moment to relax before heading into another work week.  I’m sure this is a familiar scenario for most of us.

 If it’s raining on the weekends we don’t have the luxury of waiting for a nicer day to do laundry. So, no matter what the weather, unless we are out of town, the laundry is done Saturday morning.  The back porch has a clothesline running the entire length of the porch and there is a folding drying rack out there. If it’s sunny and we’re inspired to move the rack, it gets pulled out in the sun, but honestly it mostly stays on the porch. Rain or shine out goes the laundry on Saturday morning. If it’s nice and our schedule allows, the laundry gets put away Saturday afternoon.  If it’s rainy or we don’t have time it stays on the line until it’s dry or we get around to it. It’s a perfect system for us.  

So a year of hanging laundry has gone by, and we are ready to take the next step. We decided to make our own laundry detergent. I found a recipe online that made a nice big batch and gave it a try.  

Here’s the recipe

Laundry soap 

2 gallon bucket

1/3 bar Fels Naptha bar soap
1/2 c. washing soda
1/2 c. borax powder

Grate soap and put it in a sauce pan
Add 6 cups water and heat until soap melts
Add washing powder and Borax and stir until they dissolve
Remove from heat
Pour 4 c. hot water into the bucket. 
Add soap mixture and stir
Now add 1 gal. plus 6 cups of water and stir
Let soap sit for 24 hours. It will gel.

use 1/2 c. per load

You can add an essential oil if you want. I didn't this time to see how it is unscented. 

We've been using this detergent for several weeks and it seems to do an excellent job of cleaning at pennies per load. I'm excited about our new soap, which I think is much more environmentally sound and it definitely will save us money.  My only question about my ingredients is the Fels Naptha soap. According to what I read originally the soap has been around for 100 years and so I assumed (never assume) that it was a safe or at least more environmentally friendly product. But, after some poking around on the internet I'm finding mixed reviews.  Some say that the soap contains at least one petrochemical ingredient and others say that there is no longer any petrochemical products used in the soap.    I don’t know. I might try Ivory instead in my next batch. If anyone has any feedback on this it would be greatly appreciated. In the end, I think I probably have a better product now than what I was buying previously at the grocery…cheaper anyhow. 



Saturday, November 13, 2010

Snapshots of Adventure Farm

I picked up a load of mulch that, when I parked it in the driveway, showed a little microcosm of our farm in the city:

Here is our farm truck in the middle of residential St. Louis, loaded with mulch and tools, with the haul from our great pumpkin heist below and tree cuttings on the right from my nascent tree business.

And this is a view from above (well, from the roof) of our back yard showing Deanna's creativity and hard work. You can see the mulch paths and organic garden on the right that we're currently working on. Throughout are other growing beds and her lawn-art touches like the pond and stream in the upper left that is run by a water pump, the wooden arch on the left made out of ladders, old bathtub fountain in the lower right, etc.

Just a couple of snapshots of the humble beginning of our Adventure Farm.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Great Pumpkin Heist

Helping Jack-o-Lanterns find a better final resting place

This year Halloween really got under my skin, and it wasn’t the spooks in the streets that got me.  In fact, it was more post-Halloween angst that was making me anxious and on edge.  I kept looking at all those jack-o-lanterns on everyone’s porch and envisioning their final journey.  All that organic material headed to the landfill! I was having a hard time accepting this, and so I decided that this year I was going to do a little something about it. My only defense for my behavior is to say that living in an urban area makes me extremely aware of the wasted materials we send to the dump that should (in my opinion) be going back to improving our mostly poor urban soil.

So, last night Guy and I went on an undercover mission in search of trashed pumpkins. Guy drove the get away truck while I jumped out and snatched pumpkins peaking out from under trashcan lids.  In a matter of about 30 minutes we had gathered seven pumpkins to join the 7-8 pumpkins I already had from a friend who noticed a nursery that had cleaned pumpkins to sell as “ready to carve.” She stopped and asked if she could have what was left. They were glad to get rid of them. Thank goodness for crazy friends.

However, I suddenly found myself with all these pumpkins, and I’m not set up very well for composting. I really don’t have room for a large composting bin. Instead I have a tumbling composting barrel for my kitchen waste and a small freestanding pile for stuff I gather out of the yard during the summer.  In the fall I just compost in place.  The vegetable plants I cut down this fall I cut up into smaller pieces and dropped them right there. I’m working now to get the beds covered with leaf mulch and horse manure before winter sets in.

Nursery pumpkins in the new bed 

I brought home the nursery pumpkins this past weekend and smashed and added them to the new bed. I’m making, a sort of hugelkultur/sheet mulch bed.  The ones I got on our nighttime raid will be broken up this coming weekend and added to the existing gardens as a layer to be covered by leaf mulch and horse manure. 

I decided I needed to break them up a bit

First layer of free compost covering
the broken pumpkins.

I’m discovering that looking for organic materials can make me do some strange things. 
Happy Jack-o-Lantern

Don’t forget to compost your pumpkin. Or, if you live in St Louis I have room for a few more.

Monday, November 1, 2010

An Exercise in Focus

New mulched path along the future woodland garden (left)

I’m making an effort to stay focused on one area of my y
ard this year. My usual habit in the garden is to flit from one thing to another surrendering to whatever interests me at the moment, and therefore rarely actually completing anything. This has been fine in the past when gardening served primarily as an escape from the stresses of life and for my own personal satisfaction. However, now I want to be more focused. There are new reasons for my garden, and I want to share what I’m doing with others.

After the recent permaculture course, I had a million ideas floating around in my head with the tendency to want to do a little of this and a little of that just to try out these new ideas. However, I’m attempting to change this habit so that I have some solid working examples of permaculture practices to show people as I move forward with my urban permaculture project. So, much as I would like to work on my front yard, I am determined to focus on getting my backyard to a place that is more complete. At this point I think I have a pretty solid plan for my beds and what I want planted in different areas of my yard, it’s just getting areas completed that’s the big hurdle.

This weekend Guy and I worked on hauling wood chips to complete (or nearly complete) the path system in the backyard. I say nearly complete, because there is one area at the top of the driveway that I’m not quite certain what to do with yet. I’m thinking possibly chickens, but I need to mull this around a bit longer and look into some chicken tractors. That’s another story. Now I’m doing my best to stay focused on mulch :)
Potential chicken tractor site with the
abruptly ending mulch path
As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, if you live in an urban area there is an unlimited supply of organic matter free for the taking. I’m fortunate that I have several municipalities in the area that leave mountains (well, small hills) of organic matter for community members to haul away. There’s plenty of woodchips of varying textures available now, and soon there will be plenty of leaf mulch too. I’ve been dreaming of a lawn free yard for years and this weekend I have the job half finished. My backyard is now mostly lawn free except for the spot I can’t decide on yet, and the front yard is well on its way.

The paths have also allowed me to more easily define my garden beds. Because a large part of my yard was once a well-packed gravel driveway, most of my beds need to be raised. Therefore, you will see cement blocks in the pictures. I’m not a fan of rectangle beds, I like softer shapes, and I’ve found that the cement blocks are an easy way to design beds in any shape I need and holds the new soil well. After a year I can remove the cement blocks and continue to add organic matter to the bed without worrying about the soil eroding away. The beds become more hilled, tapering down to the pathway, but much nicer looking without the blocks. You can see examples of both types of beds in the picture below. By the end of next year, the cement blocks should be gone and the beds beginning to look more established.

A view from the brick patio. You can see the newer garden
 addition with the concrete blocks on the right and the
older beds on the left and back center.

I’m pleased with the results of the weekend. Now on to amending the existing beds and building some Hugelkultur beds (using woody materials as a base for a bed). Besides looking for those wonderful jack-o-lanterns that everyone wants to pitch, we will be hauling soil, leaf mulch and horse manure regularly until we fill in the beds. Hopefully, in a year of two we will be able to sustain the beds with the organic matter generated on the property, but for now we need outside help.

Hope to see you at the leaf mulch pile.


Sunday, October 24, 2010


The October Permaculture Design Course Participants

Adventure Farm Spring 2010

Well it’s been too long since I’ve posted, but that doesn’t mean a lot hasn’t been going on. In fact, it seems I've been so busy it's been hard to find a moment to write. 

For instance earlier this month I found myself in Steele, IL at a Permaculture Design course. It was an intense 8 days of learning, and I left with my head full of ideas.

For those of you who don’t know what Permaculture is I will try and explain. I’m actually in the process of developing my “elevator” speech on Permaculture so this will be good practice.

“Permaculture” was coined by two Australians, Bill Mollison and one of his students, David Holmgren. Originally the word was a contraction of  “permanent agriculture” however, as the permaculture practice evolved so did the meaning of the word, which is now mostly understood to mean “permanent culture.”

Most of us practice parts of permaculture already in our gardens and with the choices we make in our lives.  For instance, if you are composting; growing some of your own food; buying food at the farmer’s market;  supporting local businesses; walking or biking to work; or foraging for food, you are involved in a piece of permaculture. When you consciously start to pull these pieces together and design your life around the principles of permaculture, you are practicing permaculture.

You can see how this might work by looking at the Ethics of permaculture

1) Care of the Earth
2)  Care of people 
3)  Fair distribution of surplus

There are also principles of permaculture, which I won’t go into here, that help to guide the process.

Permaculture includes all areas of our lives from the food we eat to the community in which we live.  For me, taking a permaculture design course helped to begin to pull together the pieces that I already practice in my life and to build on this foundation to live more responsibly and consciously.

So, that is my first shot at an elevator speech for permaculture. I think this one is probably for the ride up to the top of the Arch here in STL.  I’ll keep working on trimming it down and making it clearer.  It's a complex idea and still hard for me to articulate very clearly. 

I am hoping to start a St. Louis permaculture group this winter with a friend from Chicago I met at the course who would like to do the same thing in Chicago.  This fall we will be helping each other develop workshops to begin to bring other interested people in the St. Louis and Chicago areas together as a support network.

Stayed tuned for updates on the first “Introduction to Permaculture” workshop coming soon.



If you are interested in learning more about permaculture, here are a few websites to check out.

Midwest Permaculture  (Where I took my course)

The Permaculture Project

The Permaculture Institute

Urban Permaculture Guild

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Garden Guardians

The garden/yard of Adventure Farm has a small water feature that has served to enhance the human experience as well as attract many of the area wildlife. I give much credit to my native plants and my little pond and waterfall for the beauty and entertainment I find in my garden each day. Not only do I have toads, snakes and dragonflies that are obviously drawn to the water, but also some not so welcome garden and pond visitors such as raccoons, squirrels and rabbits.  I love my snakes as anyone who knows me will attest, and I can't wait till spring to hear the toads gathering at my pond from around the neighborhood. The dragonflies are awesome too, and do a great job of taking care of the mosquitoes, both larval stage and flying, which leads me in a round about way to a recent standoff between two of my very favorite visitors and guardians of my garden. These two are at the top of my list of favorites, and at least one does a nice job of keeping some of the not so welcome guests at bay.

        Dragonfly on Garden Peas
For many years now I have had a pair of cooper's hawks that nest in the neighborhood and visit my pond frequently. One year I also had the pleasure of their fledglings hanging out in the yard for about 24 hours stumbling around like drunken teenagers as they were leaving the nest and learned to get around on their legs and wings, but that's another story. All summer at least one, the male I think, claims this neighborhood as his territory. According to Wikipedia and some birding friends, their primary food choice is birds. However, they also are known to eat small rodents and lizards, frogs and snakes. Not exactly what I want in my backyard with my friendly snakes and toads, but none the less, I'm crazy about this bird.  He guards my yard during the day and I suppose has gotten many a tasty bird meal from my yard as well.

As evening comes I have another guardian who arrives. This past spring we had a pair of barred owls nest in a wooded area on the next block. They too would use our pond and hang out around our yard into the evening. I became accustomed to hearing the call of the barred owl around 5:30-6:00 in the evening as I watered my garden and would often see one silently arriving to sit in a neighbor's tree overlooking our yard. It became a lovely ritual that I looked forward to. I began to think of the hawk and owl as taking shifts, one going to bed as the other took over.

Last week I learned how possessive one hawk is of his work shift. I was out in the garden one morning picking tomatoes before heading off for my work shift when I startled, and was startled by, the owl getting a drink from the pond before he retired for the day. He hopped away and stood staring at me. I crept back into the house to share the experience with Guy. When we returned he allowed us to observe him for a few more minutes before fluttering a few feet to the top of our backyard fence where he quietly sat watching us. Of course, the bluebirds were not so quiet. They were shouting the alarm and getting louder. I can only imagine what Mr. Cooper thought when he heard the ruckus that was not directed at him. But when he discovered the "problem" he went absolutely crazy. He drowned out the bluebirds with his screech and swooped down at the barred owl hitting him on the head. I swear he was shouting about Mr Barred taking his shift. The owl ducked and then flew to a more protected area of the fence where there was some vegetation to hide in. Actually, he didn't seem all the concerned, just annoyed. In fact the harassment went on for 15-20 minutes with the hawk swooping or sitting nearby staring, but the owl seemed unconcerned and at one point was actually looking down at the ground as if he was looking for a mouse to snack on. Guy and I were having a great time watching all this and took pictures like crazy.  After a while the hawk got tired of harassing the owl and getting no response and Guy and I decided it would be a good idea to get to our work, so we left Mr Barred on his perch and left for our day. I haven't met the owl in the morning since, but I sure hope to see him around again soon. I need him to keep those bunnies and squirrels out of my garden.

Backyard Stand-Off
Barred Owl (left) Cooper's Hawk (right)

Monday, July 26, 2010

Eating close to home

It has been a great summer as we learn how to eat closer to home and the Earth. We have been learning more about growing our own food and buying from our local farmer's market. This past weekend I also learned a little more about foraging for wild foods.

Saturday I spent the day with a close friend foraging for mushrooms at a wonderful farm just outside of St. Louis. The weather has been a little too dry for mushrooms, but the hot weather and the promise of a lake to swim in, drew us both to the country.  We started the day by walking through the woods in the hope of finding chanterelles. Karen, my foraging buddy, had recently had great luck finding chanterelles, which she kindly cooked and shared with both Guy and me.

This day we weren't 50 feet into the woods before we spied our first chanterelle. Excitedly, we looked all around the area and only found one other dried up chanterelle. We continued to explore the area stopping now and again to admire flowers, ferns and the occasional scat. Yes, we actually do admire scat from time to time.  In this case it was very fortunate that we enjoy this rather peculiar activity since as we were examining some particularly interesting scat we looked up to spy a real treat. Attached to a rotting log was a shelf mushroom called Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus sulphureus) also called Sulfur Shelf. This is a beautiful and, I was soon to find out, delicious mushroom that is found on rotting wood. It is an absolutely beautiful orange and white that looks like something you would find snorkeling and not in a humid Missouri woodland.  Thank goodness we found this lovely and rather large mushroom since we would have looked pretty pathetic returning with our one tiny chanterelle. However, after a lovely swim in the lake we returned home the successful hunters.

Pictured here is our delicious Sunday dinner.

Blue bowl: contains potatoes dug a few hours earlier from the garden, onions (not from the garden) boiled and thickened with flour with salt and pepper seasoning. 

Maroon bowl: Chicken of the Woods mushroom, garlic (garden), scallion (not from the garden) and thyme (not from the garden).

Yellow bowl:  yellow and zucchini squash, okra, garlic (all from the garden) sauteed in olive oil. 

Bread: home made with non-local ingredients but also no preservatives. 

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Hunting for Adventure Farm

The search has begun. This past Sunday we took our first trip to look for a place to call Adventure Farm.  This piece of property is in St. James, MO.  A couple is selling a large parcel of land broken into a wide variety of pieces that you can mix and match in all different ways. I had a great time and decided the whole experience was amazingly fun. Guy, on the other hand, found it “interesting.” 

The land is for sale by owner, which means that we got to meet the folks who owned the land. It was a wonderful first experience.  This couple spent almost four hours with us wandering the property and endlessly discussing the possibilities despite the fact that they knew most of the pieces were out of our price range.  I’m amazed at their generosity.

This first experience was a great exercise in looking for what we need.  We now know a little more about what we are willing to give up and what we absolutely can’t live without.  I can say with confidence that Deanna’s needs are much different than Guy’s, which should guarantee an awesome piece of property but a property that will probably take some time to find.

Here’s a quick run down of “can’t live withouts” for both of us. 

Guy’s needs


Blackberries-they were ripe on this property, and Guy was hungry :)

Trees -
  • a stand of trees that can be used for a challenge course
  • open grown trees for recreational tree climbing
  • a grove of trees for tree houses, a big swing and just to enjoy

In other words; trees, trees, trees.

Deanna’s needs

Water (stream, pond, spring…)

Ummm, not quite what I had in mind. 

Flat open land for growing food
No highway noise
A house NOT a mobile home
  • Southern exposure
  • Fireplace
  • Big kitchen
  • Without the cheap, tacky remodel, please
  • It can be “As Is” if it has character, is structurally sound and has the above characteristics.  For the right price, of course. Actually, for the right price we could build. Although building is not our first choice.

 An "As Is" with potential, but DEFINITELY the wrong price.

The Shining Star on the property. Maybe we could live in the barn.

This place had a lot of what we want, but the price and a few missing "must haves" made it just a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. So, if anyone knows where this dream property is, send us a note. Deanna, for one, can’t wait to look some more!



Sunday, June 27, 2010

Introduction to the Invasives

Living in an urban area has its conveniences but also many challenges. One of those challenges is dealing with the invasive plant species that have been introduced by well meaning gardeners.  Here are several we are continually battling.

Bush Honeysuckle (Lonicera morrowi)

Bush honeysuckle is a native of Asia and extremely invasive. The berries are eaten by birds, which transport them all over. They easily end up in our area parks and woodlands where they take over.

Bush honeysuckle was planted along the edge of our yard before I moved in. It took me quite some time to become informed about this invasive, and I have been fighting it since. They are extremely hard to kill. It cannot be done without herbicides, which I carefully dab on the cut stumps to try and avoid contaminating anything around it.  Every spring I am continuing to pull seedlings that pop up in my yard.

If you discover bush honeysuckle in your yard, please take it out and consider replacing it with native plants.  If you live in Missouri, the Missouri Department of Conservation has an excellent brochure, which gives wonderful native alternatives.

Wintercreeper  (Euonymus fortunei)

This plant has been used as a ground cover all over St. Louis. You can also find many “euonymus trees” in the area as people let the vine grow up the tree. When allowed to stay on the ground it can usually be kept confined to a given area. However, when this vine is allowed to climb up trees and on fences it will flower and produce berries, which, just like the bush honeysuckle, the birds eat and spread. Wintercreeper is being found in our local parks and woodlands where it chokes out the wild flowers and kills small trees reducing the diversity in any area it grows.  At Adventure Farm I find wintercreeper in my gardens on a regular basis.

Some lovely MO native ground covers that can be used in place of wintercreeper include:

Squaw-weed (Senecio obavatus and Senecio ampullaceus)
Native ferns
Rose verbena (Glandularia canadensis)
Purple poppy mallow (Callirhoe involucrate)
May Apple (Podophllum peltatum)
Canadian Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense)

Sweet autumn virginsbower  (Clematis terniflora )

This is one of our biggest problems. This clematis blooms in the fall with beautiful showers of tiny white flowers. I can understand the attraction. However, it is highly invasive and hard to get out. I pull and pull this stuff every year and try to make sure it doesn’t bloom and go to seed in the fall.

Unfortunately these are not the only invasives in our area and that trouble us at Adventure Farm.  There are more than I could possibly list here, but a short list of sometimes surprising invasives include:

Burning Bush
Butterfly Bush
English Ivy
Rose of Sharon
Japanese honeysuckle

Please take some time and become familiar with your native alternatives. A nice place to visit online for MO natives is the Grow Native website at

Grow native is a program developed jointly by Missouri Department of Conservation and the Missouri Department of Agriculture.

If you don't live in Missouri, I'm sure there are many resources in your area to help you become informed, too. Get Googling :)

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Vegetables

This is my third year growing food, and I learn a lot every year. For instance, I learned last year that vegetables need much better soil than the natives. We worked all last fall hauling leaf mulch and horse manure along with anything else that we thought would help the soil and that we could get for free. One thing we are determined to do is get the best soil for as little cost as possible. Hopefully, soon we will be able to add nutrients to the soil just using the compost generated from the garden waste coming from the property along with composted chicken manure. That would be the most sustainable way, and our goal. However, our soil has been depleted for too long and needs some outside help at first. Plus, we are not ready to add chickens to the site, so we haul what we can find for free to our little plot of land. 

You may be surprised at how easy it is to find free resources for improving your soil.  Many of the St. Louis municipalities offer free leaf and wood mulch if you are willing to haul it away. We got plenty of both last fall and I suspect will continue to need to add more for a few more years. You can also find people with horses in the St. Louis area who are happy to have you haul off as much soiled bedding as you would like. Another opportunity we have found is from garden nurseries who use straw bales for decoration in the fall. These bales become wet and moldy and perfect to cover those freshly made garden beds. This past fall we were able to build raised beds that included layers of leaf mulch, garden compost and horse bedding and then covered them with a thick layer of moldy straw. The straw helped to insulate the new bed during the winter and the earthworms and other soil organisms had a party all winter. This spring when I started to plant the veggies, I found beautifully composted soil full of worms. The work we did in the fall and the work the soil detritivores and decomposers did in the winter is paying off big time this summer. Things are looking way better than last year's sorry crop. 

 Most of our seeds this year came from Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co. in Mansfield MO.  We used them last year too and had good success. We enjoy supporting a more local seed supplier and using heirloom seeds.  For more information you can go to their website at

While I'm thinking about it, another local supplier is Morgan County Seeds,  They are located in Barnett, MO and have great prices. Their site isn't as pretty as Baker Creek, and I often have to go elsewhere to get more details on a product they are offering, but most of the time the price is worth the extra effort. A word of warning though, they are a small business and during the busy times of year ship REALLY slowly. They'll tell you this, but if you aren't prepared and need something right away, it's a bit of a bummer. Be sure you plan ahead when ordering from them.  

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Introduction to the Natives

 Much of the land at Adventure Farm has been converted to areas with native plants.  Missouri has a history of flora diversity, which includes the wetlands along the largest river in the continental US, the Ozark mountains, and large expanses of prairie. In this small space we have included species found in all those areas.  As a result of planting and nurturing these natives, we have also observed the change of animal species who visit our backyard. Among the many fauna that make regular visits to our yard are cooper hawks, barred owls, garter snakes, American toads, bats, flickers, goldfinch, raccoon, and opossum among many.   While we still have many squirrels and rabbits, I am convinced that there are less because of the owls and hawks. The insect pest population is definitely reduced from the bats, snakes and toads.

Recently I was reading an article written by Dr Doug Tallamy, “Gardening for Life”, published in the Wild Ones Journal.  Dr. Tallamy does a wonderful job promoting the importance of planting natives in our yards. I would recommend this easy read to anyone who is the least bit interested in a yard with less lawn. For those of you more interested, I would suggest Bringing Nature Home: How Native plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens also by Dr. Tallamy.

You can find a copy of the above mentioned article at:

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Farming at Adventure Farm

Growing things at our urban farm started as a passion for native plants and a desire to attract and help sustain local wildlife. Since that time, many years ago, our focus has expanded to include the desire to grow our own food and make this small plot of land in St Louis county a place that helps to sustain the humans as well as the native plant and animal species.  This is a continuing learning experience that we hope to share on this blog.