We are fortunate to live in an area that allows for winter gardening.  With careful selection and by including a few preventative safeguards, we’re able to keep food growing all season long.  When frost hits the garden does take a beating, but manages to pull through with few casualties.  We haven’t enetered the deep cold of winter just yet, but all the planting happens now.  We have to get the seeds into the grounds and sprouting before nigh temperature drops too low.


This is almost a completion flip of every garden bed, switching plants out completely as they get old and tired and slow down their production.  There’s always a certain amount of guilt with pulling a pepper plant that has the buds of new fruit growing.  But seeds won’t germinate when it’s too cold, and the warm weather crops are going to take much longer to ripen in the fall anyway.  Sometimes we pull plants simply because we’re tired of eating them (ahem, cucumbers).  Needless, to say, this is a very busy time of year.

We switch everything out over the course of four to six weeks.  This way we ensure that something is always producing, and doing it all at once would be a long weekend anyway.


In an attmept to stop being willy-nilly about what goes where, we mapout all our crops ahead of time, so we don’t end up planting nothing but lettuce, or some other disaster.


It’s a bit of chicken scratch, I’m afraid.  We make the adjustments all the way up until the planting is done.

We keep the copy indefinitely (stored with our seeds) to keep a record of what went where in the past, so that we can be sure to switch it up the following year and avoid souring the soil.


All the scouting for extra grass clippings and leaves has really paid off.  We had plenty of organic material available to fertilize the soil.



Leafy greens are a winter staple.  They are so prolific and reliable that it is the best way to ensure we have fresh vegetables all season while the other plants grow to maturity





How to plant leafy greens:  It might be lazy gardening, but we broadcast the seeds in a semi straight row that runs along the drip line.  WAY more plants than will fit sprout, and gradually over time, we thin in between, getting early baby harvests.  Seeds are cheap, and we want to set ourselves up for success, so you won’t catch us planting 2 seeds every six inches any time soon.


Broadcast seedling for mustard greens and collard greens.  Always cute as babies.

Broccoli rab


Broccoli Raab

A definite change in flavor.  This is one 8-foot row in between the mustard spinach and the sugar snap peas.

SPINACH AND ARUGULA.  There are two drip lines so we planted one crop on either side.  The arugula is far more prolific than the spinach, so naturally it has crowded a little.  We cut it back as a weekly harvest to leave room for the spinach to grow.




Bok Choy.  Booming.

SWISS CHARD:  This is actually a crop that grows in any season for us.  These plants have been here since early summer and they still look amazing.  Chard triumphant.



RUBY STREAK MUSTARDS:  First year planting these. We’ll let you know how it goes.


Ruby Streak Mustards


RUSSIAN KALE:  Has been infected with aphids this year.  We’re spraying them with a homemade soapy water solution to keep them at bay.  Usually by now it’s cold enough that they go into hiding.  Not this year.  Still, here they are:



I already showed the pallet bed of lettuce early this year, and it is thriving now.  Lettuce gets bitter and a little stiff in warm weather, right now things are perfect.  We’ve spread more seeds in a raised bed, many weeks later than those in the pallet bed, which technically is how you’re supposed to do things to keep fresh crops.





CARROTS: A dedicated carrot plot.  A little crowded, but they always seem to do well.






Carrots and beets sharing the front row, though those carrots seem to be having their way with those beets.


BROCCOLI:  We’ve had moderate success with broccoli in the past.  This year we’ve preloaded the soil with plenty of organic material and spaced them apart more than one foot.  We’ve learned over time that not getting greedy with space makes a huge difference in a plant’s success.  The broccoli are more than 12″ apart.


CAULIFLOWER: We sucked at cauliflower the first few times, but in more recent seasons have managed to do ourselves proud with


BRUSSEL SPROUTS:  We, haven’t had much luck with brussel sprouts.  But we’re going to give it another try this year.


Brussel sprout seedling at the end of the line, with plenty of room to grow


Brussel sprouts in tires.  Excited about this project

How we planted:  Full disclosure here.  We bought seedlings at the store for all of these.  The low cost of buying healthy plants that won against the time and effort investment of nurturing seedlings.



We definitely didn’t rotate into a winter garden in one week.  It’s the usual workload of turning soil, adding compost, planting seeds, then watering generously over the next several days until seedlings sprout.


Actually, upkeep is fairly low.  A winter garden needs less watering, and while weeding is an option, we don’t always get around to it and things thrive just the same.  The work becomes harvesting and cooking, and who is complaining about that?


There is trouble in paradise, as it happens.  The weather is warmer than it should be this time of year (and maybe that’s going to keep happening), and with that the aphids aren’t receding into hiding.  They are all over the Russian kale.


Kale leaf riddled with aphids

We deal with this a few ways.  One is that we use a soapy water solution.  So far it’s had success, but is a challenge with rain, and we are finding that we have to spray under each leaf to coat it and discourage the aphids.

The best solution is for the cold to come.  If only.

We do salvage the harvested leaves by submerging them in water and letting them float for several minutes.  Possibly 2-3 times in a row.  And then a semi-thorough inspection – whatever you’re comfortable with.

And CATERPILLARS are definitely eating their fair share.  We don’t nearly have the slug/snail problem that we used to ever since I started manually evicting them – the population has not recovered.

a caterpillar decimated a cauliflower plant:


Cauliflower remnants after caterpillar attack.  Had to be replaced.


And this guy:


Look at how much of this leaf is gone because of this one furry guy.  Probably been living there for a while.

We haven’t looked into sprays to handle this (and honestly don’t really want to).  Since it’s a homestead operation, we opt for manual removal.  Finding them in action is the tricky part.  Searching under the leaves is helpful, and stirring the understory at ground level is useful.

At the end of the day there is plenty to go around, and having a few sacrificial leaves and/or plants is one way to protect the others.



One thing I’ve been hiding from everyone is that I am wretched at lawn care.  Possibly because I don’t care beyond Devin (pup) having a place to, you know, do her thing.

We wanted less lawn to mow and more area to plant different varieties of crops (preferring a combination of reliable harvests with room to experiment).  A tree is in this new area, but we think it will add to the serenity of the growing area.

Here’s what it looks like right now.  We’re still getting poured upon pretty heavily so we haven’t planted just yet.


And, I know the angle is different, but here is what it looks like just after removal.




  • A landscape edging tool.  Which looks exactly like this:

Lawn removal edging tool = $25

  • A shovel
  • Grungy clothes (including shoes ready for mud)
  • Gloves

Like I said the last time I removed lawn, it isn’t an automatic process and it isn’t light work, but this time especially the removal area was so small that a machine would be impractical.  So download your podcast or Audible and get to work.

In a nutshell, cut sod strips out of your lawn.  Push the landscape edging tool straight down into the lawn.  Make a line all the way down the length of the lawn.  Then, about 12″ to 18″ away, cut another parallel line.  Then pull up the strip.  you may want to use a shovel to pry it loose.  Get down there.  Bend with the knees.  Grunt.  Enjoy.




…then roll

Then a little care and attention, and the place is now ready for planting.


Circular planting space that we’re really excited about.  Plants forthcoming!

And here’s the other half of the lawn.  Which I killed mercilessly during the drought.


I could put a claim to conscientious water conservation.  But the reality was dire neglect and shameless apathy.  The grass that makes a lawn a lawn died in most areas, and weeds filled in the void.  The fast flowering pervasive species were a clear and present threat to all garden plots in the area, and the rock beds now harbored weeds.

Well, we hardly have drought anymore.  So far I’ve cut out 75% of the lawn or so for raised and level gardens with mulch between all the plots.  I had no intentions of buying more sod when I know I’d rather not waste so much water, and so I’ve gone with a much more environmental solution: clover.

Clover has lots of benefits over lawn.  It is better at nourishing the soil.  It requires less water and stays green.  It has pretty flowers.  Seeds are cheap.  It’s not as sturdy as lawn, but it’s sturdy enough for backyard (light/moderate) use.  You can mow it, or you can not mow it (grows to about 8″ tall).  And the chickens can eat all of that, so everybody wins.

Here’s what a can of clover looks like:


I won’t lie about the labor.  Damage had been done and I had work cut out for me – but again, thank…well, myself, that the lawn is a small fraction of its original size.  On my hands and knees I weeded the area.  Then I used a cultivator to loosen the soil.  No gentle raking across the surface here.  With two hands I jammed the prongs into place and shredded the surface until I had at least 1.5 inches of loose soil.


A can of clover is about $7.  And that may cover 11′ by 11′ for a densely packed spread.



And so far so good.  I’m glad I don’t have as much lawn to deal with, or to waste water on.  I should be able walk on it in a couple weeks.  Here is a very recent picture.  Well worth the effort.








Hey everyone,

And happy spring!  We hope you’r just as excited as us to rotate the garden into summer crops.  Our winter served very well on leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, beets, and the occasional monster carrot.  Still we miss our tomatoes and peppers and look forward to a change in our meal plan.

Right down to it.

I recently took a very non-structured fancy free approach to creating seed starter mix to get a start on seedlings.  Frankly, even I have mixed opinions about starting from seeds for the purpose of saving money.  It takes a little coddling, attention, SPAAAACE, and those seed packets aren’t entirely cheap if your garden goal is to have a variety of different plants and vegetables.  If you’re like me here’s what you’ll buy:

seeds with packet

And here’s what you’ll use:

seeds used

To ultimately plant this:

plant copy

Big on variety here.  Prefer to have many different plants.  Any season I can have six different kinds of peppers, and 10 varieties of tomatoes.  Sometimes buying seeds is the only way to get the plant that you want.  Seed starter mix had been tricky for us over the years.  You can buy seed starter mix for ~$8 at a hardware store, and it’s corresponding specialized formula fertilizer.  But in addition to costing a lot (you need more than one bag) you don’t feel sustainable using it (both the plastic bag, and it uses peat moss which is not sustainable).  And as usual we just like doing things ourselves.


Little disclaimer here-Online you can find way more effortful and possibly better seed starter mixes, which include uncommon household items like perlite and vermiculite.  But this is what WE used this year, and frankly it worked very well.

  • Coconut Coir-almost 50%
  • Compost, homegrown-~30%
  • Potting Soil (which we happened to have lying around, and this tends to have perlite, vermiculite, sphagnum, etc.)-~20%

Another disclaimer.  We didn’t fret too much over the ratios.  The coconut coir retains the moisture, the potting soil helps with the fluff, and the compost is the plant food.  I’ve made this without potting soil and it work OK too.  


Homemade seed starter – mix thoroughly with a spatula.




  • tank – terraium or aquarium, used – big enough for a standard seedling tray
  • heating pad
  • fluorescent light
  • foil
  • some form of clear plastic cover
  • seedling tray
  • seedling pods

Sadly my pet lizard from when I was twelve years old is no longer with us and this is the only memorabilia I have to remember him by:


And as much as I prefer to live off the sun , sometimes you just can’t.  Seedlings want to be warm, and technology is the answer,  You really want to start when it is still too cold outside – Jan/Feb




A clear plastic bag we had leftover.  You can place this on top to hold in moisture and heat


Honestly I am not positive how well the foil helps.  It supposedly will reflects the light and thus add more light.  It’s a pretty low effort add on that hasn’t caused me any problems so I’ve kept it.




Set yourself up for success.  Those seeds aren’t going to last forever anyway.  Place 3 or so in a pod when ultimately you’re going to thin it down to one plant.

While it was still winter I kept this in the bedroom and it actually helped keep the room a little warmer.




  • Won’t germinate/sprout – too cold, seeds buried too deep, not enough water, soil mixture too dense.
  • “Leggy” seedlings – not enough light, or possibly the seed mixture was too dense
  • Things have sprouted but won’t continue to grow – too cold, not enough “food” or light

All this is fine, you’re reusing a seedling pod instead of buying a new one, and it technically is a little bit cheaper.

It can be time consuming, and frustrating at first when you don’t have conditions right.  Here’s my decision tree for buying seeds vs buying plants:


  • When you’re planting a lot of the same small plants (often leafy greens, lettuces, mustards, carrots, beets, kale)
  • When the plant you want isn’t available in the store
  • If germinating plants from seed gives you a sense of pride and joy.


  • When you only want 1 or two plants (hot peppers, or one variety of tomato)
  • If you’re starting late.
  • If time and energy outweigh your desire to save $$


A lot of vegetarians claim that people can get just as much if not more protein without so much as a head nod to the meat industry.  Recently we’ve been asking ourselves about our own protein intake, and how well we’re getting by when we shirk meat (not strictly vegetarian ourselves) for vegetarian options.  After  running a few calculators (ballpark estimates at best), we decided we were actually coming up a bit short.

Yes, we were getting protein from our oatmeal, the occasional bean dish, peanut butter, and the accumulated scant amounts that compile from eating lots of and lots of vegetables.  Also, as we’ve said we’re not, strictly speaking, vegetarians (see our posts on behind the curtain).  We do, however feel that less meat is a good thing – moderation contributes to better health, cheaper meals, and a greener environment.

We’ve no intention of shaming anyone for declaring themselves obligate carnivores.  We have no problems, however, saying that the meat industry is inhumane, corrosive, and very much has aspired to corporate echelons of greed and environmental destruction.  Sadly, alternative sources (grass fed, pasture raised) are fewer and far between, and a little pricey to pick up as a staple.

So, nuts, legumes, eggs (from home), and power grains like quinoa.  We made a dedicated run to our local bulk food store (for us, this is Winco, a co-op run grocery store that treats its employees very well).  Behold the spoils:img_1194

Cost:  ~$50

Items ranged from $.89 to $1.49 per pound, so this ended up being a LOT of food.  Among these bags are lentils, kidney beans, black beans, split peas, sunflower seeds, peanuts, quinoa, and even whey protein for shakes.

We estimate it will take us months to get through all of this.  We try our best to change it up, both in food type and recipe.  The garden harvest accompanies every meal.  The slow cooker really earns its keep around here.


Beat-up slow cooker.  The fork lid handle is an upgrade



We like the glass jars, and are increasing our collection, one garage sale at a time, but in the meantime also have plastic bins:




I suppose the challenge is planning.  That is to say, “I’m going to be hungry in 6-8 hours from now.”  OR “After I eat this sandwich today there is nothing left for lunch tomorrow.”  Meal preparation can sometimes be a domesticated backhand to the face that threatens the spontaneity and privilege of having food here and now.  But here are some spending stats we’ve tried to estimate:

bean dishes (lentils, black beans, kidney beans,pinto beans, split peas) – $1.50-2.50, many, many servings
One can of beans – $1.50-$2, one serving
One cup of peanuts or sunflower seeds (which would be a lot) – $.35-$.45
Eating at a deli, taco shop, soup place, pizza, etc. – $9-$15, one serving


One way to look at it is this:

1 lb (about 2 cups) of dried beans (COST $1.19) =
-makes 6 to 7 cups cooked beans

1 15oz can of cooked beans (COST $1.25-$2.00) =
-1.75 cups when drained, making it equivalent to 1/4 to 1/3 lbs ( or 1/2 to 3/4 cupdried.

Not only do canned beans cost way more per equivalent dry pound (by roughly 3X to 4X as much), they’re in a can! The dry bulk bean equivalent is about $.30-$.40, compared to a $2 can.  Eating canned beans on a weekly basis could really add up.

I’ve had some interesting conversations with people who aren’t interested in “working for their food”.  Their salaries usually aren’t bad, per se, but a $12 lunch is not a negligible part of one hour of labor.  Even if someone makes $50 an hour, it’s still 25%, and people pay for the privilege of prepared food by working lots and lots of hours.  I’ll take my early retirement instead.


Cashews and almonds and walnuts are great, but at roughly $15 a pound we gravitate toward peanuts and sunflower seeds, keeping to our frugal selves.  I keep a supply in a cabinet at the office because, no, sometimes oatmeal and fruit isn’t enough food in the morning.  Especially after cycling 6 miles.


Our nut collection.  The tin is actually a reused container.

Peanuts aren’t that expensive, but if you’re buying small containers the cost starts to really add up.  A cup is nearly 40 grams of protein, weighs a small portion of a pound.

We also buy our soy beans in bulk to make soy milk.

We buy large oatmeal bags, so breakfast is under a dollar:


And that’s including the fruit:


Breakfast at work: oatmeal, one banana, scoop of whey, nectarine, and peanuts.


For the bread, we also keep large flour bins, and buy 50 pound bags for under $20.


The challenges to buying in bulk is the planning, storage, and perish-ability of food.  Aside from setting up a proper storage system, there really isn’t much of a time investment for this initiative.  We freeze the nuts.  The legumes do seem to last a long time.  Onc,e we uncovered kidney beans that were stale after cooking (probably a few years old).  We ate them anyway because of course we did.  100% of the grid sustainability is nigh impossible, so we’ve been fortunate to discover/create our bulk enterprise.  Cheers.





Earlier in the year I constructed a pallet garden bed.  The goal was to get some garden space up off the ground and away from predators for the especially vulnerable crops – namely strawberries.  Despite all out successes, we’ve never particularly flourished in the strawberry department.  They’re a slug favorite and we’re pesticide shy.  And in the high boom of summer harvesting we always manage to neglect this crop more than the others.

Our neighbor had two pallets in her backyard, so I acquired those with no effort whatsoever.  While many people use one pallet, as you’ll see my project used two pallets that I sandwiched together.  I’d hoped the depth would contribute to better water retention and maybe better root structure.  And more sturdy.  And higher off the ground.  And I had two pallets, so…


Rain cloth

I lined the pallets with rain cloth (basically a durable garbage bag material that comes in rolled up sheet form).  This would protect the wood from excess moisture and slow the rotting process.  It is optional according to all the tutorials out there, so it’s up to you if you want to skip this step.  It doesn’t drain per se, but I’m assuming the water will sink down and find a corner that’s not as well protected.  Or I assume that the bed is deep enough that root rot won’t become a problem.


I cut and wrapped and stapled it in place.  There’s really no one right way.  You can go with more or less protection.

Landscape cloth. 

I then lined the it with landscape cloth.   This obviously holds the dirt in place, is durable and allows for drainage.


Here you can see how this is two pallets sandwiched together.

Board it up

Next I boarded up the back/bottom of the pallet.  I used an old piece of furniture that the neighbors were throwing away.  You see how this project keeps getting cheaper and cheaper?



Finished product

It stands up really well on it’s own.  Many posters create these types of beds with the intention of vertical gardening.  I don’t really know how watering will work with that type of arrangement.  Some say you have to keep an eye on the top crops because they will dry out first.  And yes, some say it is a water hungry endeavor.


I know this is so unlike us, but I bought potting soil to fill the bed.  It has the drainage and the weight that we needed, at least for our first trial run.  I will see about using home-grown compost in the future.  In this shot you can see that I also boarded up the bottom.


And how has this recycling garden romp worked out for us you ask?

Well, it didn’t.

Not for the strawberries.  The high heat required near daily watering, and the strawberries just didn’t take root quickly enough and deeply enough to stay hydrated.  Daily watering became a chore, and was considerably inefficient and, in my opinion, a little wasteful.  Pots take more water than ground plants, and the pallet bed was more pot than anything.  It was such an arid disaster by August and I was so ashamed, I forgot to take a picture.

Perhaps if I’d started the project sooner and gotten the strawberries in the bed early they’d have taken root and been more successful.  We may try and find out next year.


Late summer/early fall I cast lettuce seeds in between the boards.  The cooler weather allowed the dirt to retain moisture, and so far things are booming.  Picture from just the other day:


I think we will get much use out of this pallet bet still.  Maybe less in June, July and August (though I think flowers will do just fine those months), but for all the other months this has been a great way to organically protect the vegetables.  I imagine a snail or two will find its way only the bed, but Snail, I will find you!  And you will be evicted!

First mini harvest from this bed was to thin out the crop


And the bed still looked plenty full afterward.




It’s that time of year.  Lock the doors and leave the porch lights on, or the neighbors will drop a payload of zucchinis on your family.  Here’s one recent picture that we took on a random Tuesday:


We made several dishes.  We consumed lots of zucchini.  And here’s where we ended up about two weeks later:


There really is no end in sight.

Yes, we’re eating them.  Daily.  I may have overdone it with the zucchini planting this year.  There were several varieties and I couldn’t see myself parting with one.  And for at least two plots I let a cluster of two plants share the space, which has only contributed to the problem.  I may very well be pulling a plant or two soon before I have to take out a loan and rent a storage facilities.

We’re grateful though.  It’d take a real monster to blame your plants for doing too good of a job.

zucchini plant filtered

But what’s the deal with these things, anyway?  Why do they grow so much faster than other crops.  Why can’t they just slow down?  Or why can’t other crops speed up to match the alarming pace of their low carb high potassium overcrowding friends?  I look forlornly at the banana pepper plant, as it comparatively ekes out produce at a snail’s pace and resist the urge to pat it on the plant-shoulder and tell it not to feel so bad.  It makes sense to know that zucchinis are picked when they’re technically not fully ripened and hardened.  Harvesting vegetables and fruits is almost always joyful experience, so why is it with this one crop do we catch ourselves saying “again?” when the spouse walks in with an armload.

Maybe you’ve had a zucchini problem yourself.  Maybe you’ve dealt with it using legitimate means, maybe you’ve dropped surplus in random mailboxes around your neighborhood.  Regardless of how you conducted yourself in these trying times, you are not alone.  We personally take our zucchini invasion as a formal challenge.

Size.  Without deliberately inspiring the obvious joke, I will tell you that smaller IS better.  6-8 inches is a good range to stay in.  As they grow bigger they lose the flavor, are prone to mushy cooking, and eventually will harden and taste something like sweaty Styrofoam.  I don’t know.

Grilled.  Outside cooking.  Olive oil, garlic salt, paprika if you wish.  Cut the zucchinis about 1/4 inch thick the full length of the zucchini.  Guaranteed to be perfectly palatable, and to put a dent in the surplus.  These grilled strips also go well in sandwiches.


Grilled Zucchini

FRITTATA.  Or I suppose you could call it a casserole if you wish.  Or a baked omelet.    Or a vegetable cake.  Or a nutrient square.


Frittata, casserole thing

Like everyone else, staple recipes are a way of life, and for us they’re part of efficient sustainability operation.  If always looked up new recipes just to keep our pallets refreshed we’d never get anything done.  We go back to the same omelets, stir frys, scrambles, sandwiches, and pasta dishes constantly.  We throw things on top of brown rice half the week, and when we’re really feeling drained we’ll just use the blender.








Early summer has just exploded this year.  Here’s a current picture of our garden from the second story.


We made a few adjustments this year that our novice minds from the early 2010s couldn’t comprehend.  For one, we planted fewer plants this year and gave each one more space.  This way they weren’t leaf-punching one another as their roots fought for more water.  We also managed to accumulate more compost this year (which will be an upcoming post by itself), and again we had fewer plants to feed.  We’re finally getting the hang of watering in our sweltering environment.  But one of the most notable changes was how we committed ourselves to companion planting.  We’ve been dabbling in companion gardening for the past several years, but this year we threw ourselves into it.  A ton of guides exist out there telling what to plant with what and, if you’re lucky, why.  While we read some basics and hit on a few traditional pairings, we also used our best judgment and entered the waters of experimentation.


Well, lots of reasons:
-It’s better looking, aesthetically.
-It helps to repel pests
-It attracts beneficial insects and bugs
-It provides ground cover to assist with water retention and to discourage weed ground
-Many companions exchange with or provide nutrients to one another.

This last point is by far the most scientific, and for the average gardener opens the floodgate to an almost overwhelming knowledge base.  We narrowed the data we needed by starting with our favorite crops and seeing what we could do to improve their yield.  Tomatoes love basil and borage.  Green beans go well with potatoes.  Peppers and eggplants benefit from having marigolds around.  And so on.


Many years ago a certain blogger (okay, me) didn’t see the value in spending the time, money, energy, compost, and planting space for a bunch of flowers, that not only didn’t provide food, but only served to make things “pretty.”  Well, flowers are awesome.  Even the monochromatic green could use a little flare at times.

bees close up

Borage in the tomato bed, doin’ a fine job attracting bees.

We’ve discovered that flowers not only need a lot less organic compost than food plants, the drought-tolerant types tend to need less water.  We followed this strategy: plant vegetables first, then add in flowers wherever there’s room.  The resource competition between the two is hardly fierce.  They get along just fine.

petunia pepper

Petunias and Peppers

daisy tomato

Daisies and Tomatoes


According to Sally Jean Cunningham, author of “Great Garden Companions,” the basics are: one main crop, one flower, and one herb.  This grouping provides the best combination of ground cover, aroma, beneficial insect attraction, and pest repulsion.  If you’re attracting bees, covering the ground to hold in water and prevent weed growth, and providing habitats for predatory insects (i.e. which eat the other insects you don’t want), you’ve already one three battles.  Of course you want eventually want the nutrient companions so that plants share and pass calcium/nitrogen/phosphorous as needed, but…baby steps.  We may learn a few recommended parings per season.

chard elysium

Alyssum growing under the chard, keep weeds out and water in.

We have basil all over the place as well.  Between tomatoes, peppers, under the cucumber vine.


Peppers, basil, eggplant, marigolds, and purslane all in one bed.

One popular companion duo is green beans and potatoes.  They repel one another’s predators, and the potatoes, heavy feeders, enjoy the nitrogen the beans return to the soil.  We’ve dedicated half a row to this pairing.

potato_bean row filtered

Massive row of beans and potatoes.Famous best buds.


melon and nasturgium filtered

melons and nasturtium plants.  Another known pairing that works well.

And of course sunflowers grow rampant.  So much so that we’re constantly (judiciously) removing them and keeping the ones that we want.

sunflowers filtered

Sunflowers.  Bees like them and so do we.  Also, they supposedly repel aphids.





Project bookshelf was inspired as books began to clutter high against the walls.  When you trip on one and fold the cover page in half you know your life is a literary mess.  A bookshelf at Ikea is $80 minimum for the size we wanted, and that’s for particle board, laminated paneling, and no love whatsoever.  And to elaborate on this last point, we weren’t just interested in saving money.  We wanted something with style, originality, and something that exuded the real beauty of natural wood, charming blemishes and all.  Furthermore, there’s something exceptional about owning and using something self-built, of high quality, that is going to last a very long time.

If you run a search you’ll see that pallet bookshelves are all the rage, and there is no end to creative construction.

I wish I could make this post more instructional, but I didn’t take enough photographs (something I’ll try to correct in the future).  And I don’t want to boggle you with convoluted descriptive text.  But I do have the basics in place.


-sawzall (optional? We borrowed from a neighbor)
-power drill (already owned)
-chop saw (we borrowed one from a different neighbor)
-sander (purchased for this project, $35)
-measuring tape
-wood screws

Getting the pallet wood – Go to small businesses – large businesses will tend to have a system in place for recycling pallets.  Small businesses often don’t, and will be more than happy to let you take them of their hands.  We picked up ours at a brewing supply store.

Taking the pallets apart – This isn’t so easy, unfortunately.  In fact, very little about this particular project was easy.  So if you’re not handy and/or your frustration threshold is low then this may be the point where you should stop.

Deconstructing pallets is made much easier with a sawzall.  Rather than prying, hammering, and breaking wood, saw through the nails.  Nails are soft metal and relatively easy to cut through.  Here’s the tutorial I followed.


Selecting/creating a design – This is where things got a little tricky.  We knew we didn’t want to close off a room by installing a huge wooden block in it.  An open design was far trickier to pull off, but ultimately more rewarding.  We used the pallet’s center support beams (“C” shaped), and faced them inward toward each other.  Furring strips hold them together, and double as the shelving supports.


one side of the bookshelf.


I know the lighting could be better.  Sorry!

On dimensions – we found that bookshelves are about 11″ deep, even with the width and height being variable.  Our bookshelf is 3′ wide, 6′ tall, and 11″ deep.

On shelving – we also found that bookshelves are not necessarily evenly spaced, and that, if anything, shelves are larger on the bottom and smaller going towards the top.  We followed suit with this pattern, and our lower shelf fits oversized books, while the top shelf is best suited for pocket books.

Sanding the pieces – Before screwing everything together we sanded each piece one at a time, first with a fine sandpaper, and again with an extra fine sandpaper.  An electric sander is $20-$60, and because we’ve used it since this project it was worth the investment.

Staining the pieces – also before screwing anything together.  We picked a tint that allowed the grain to show through.  Buttered Rum.  Best choice we made this year.



On (finally) screwing things together – we created countersink holes for every single screw, which serves to hide the screw and generally make the final product look nicer.  This professional diagram conceptually shows you how it works.

countersink diagram

But we didn’t use a special tool for this.  We wrapped duct tape around a larger drill bit.  Like this:


The larger drill bit is used to create the slightly larger hole to “sink” the screw head.

Frame – The back frame is going to Impact how sturdy and how straight the entire bookshelf is.  We used a level all along the way to ensure it was as straight as possible.  It was still a little off, because pallet wood, but imperfections are all part of the joy of recycling.




Beveling the top – So as to avoid being completely square, we beveled the top.  We did this by cutting the piece at a 45 degree angle, and then cutting halfway through the triangle that was creating by the 45 degree cut.


Shelves – all the shelves on this bookshelf are free resting and removable.  Here we learned to appreciate the merits of production line assembly – cutting, sanding, and staining.  Because our frame is “charmingly” bent in places, the boards didn’t always fit, so don’t feel bad if that happens to you.  You may have to shave a few millimeters off a shelf to make it fit on a particular row.

Again, this project wasn’t particularly easy, but it was very rewarding.  We are very happy with the way it looks, and looking back, we would gladly do it again.



As you can see, the time to build another is nigh…

As a bonus, we got these tables absolutely free.  The finish was in poor condition (again, I have GOT to get better with the before pictures).  But because we invested in a sander and had leftover stain, we now have matching end tables.  It didn’t take an hour to finish these.


That rustic Pottery Barn look, but up close it doesn’t have that phony production feel.





OK, the title might be halfway misleading, if you assumed we have now torn ourselves away from the shackles of fiscal obligation, and have naught to do but sip from our wheat grass patch as we watch our neighbors go to work every morning.  We’re not there yet, nor do we expect to choose that lifestyle anytime soon.  But there’s something to be said about relieving the stresses of bills and HAVING to work excessive hours in order to sustain your lifestyle.  I’m not the only one to write about this. But this is our blog, and therefore our story.  We don’t talk about finances often, for as many others do we see it as a personal matter.  But people have asked, and after all we’re not doing this (only) for our health – Therefore, this post is brought to you by popular request.

We paid off our mortgage in seven years.

That’s right.  Seven.  And frankly we only tried starting at the last three years or so.  After reviewing our monthly statements and statistics, we decided we didn’t want to pay, literally, more money in interest than the initial loan amount we borrowed to buy the house.  I mean, who wants to pay twice as much for anything?  We also decided that “writing off” that interest was of almost no benefit, because interest rates are so low in this era.

But I don’t want to get preachy about tax benefit misconceptions.  Our goal is always sustainability, and we just want to tell you how we did it.  I’ll give you one hint:  It wasn’t because we make a lot of money.

In fact, if you’ve been following us for any amount of time, you know that our talents lie in saving money rather than making it.  We do OK, sure, but our income (for our state) is by all accounts average and maybe even a little modest.

Before this post gets too long, I will front-load the rules we followed to pay our mortgage off early:

  1. Don’t buy new things you don’t need.  If you think you need it, try to go without.  You may surprise yourself. Pretty much make your default decision on purchases “no”.  Learn to embrace garage sales and Craigslist, and consider making it yourself (bookshelf post coming soon).  If you can’t decide whether you should buy something, walk away.  You’ll have your answer the following day, if you haven’t forgotten about it.
  2. Grow your own food, but even if you don’t…
  3. Don’t eat out as a regular habit, especially as a work-time lunch habit.  Many people don’t realize how much they spend on this.  For many, it is the lion’s share of their paycheck.  Cook.  Buy groceries.  Buy nutrition in bulk (future post).  I know Chipotle tastes good, and sometimes it’s worth it.  But is it worth making a habit out of it?  We’re not talking cold turkey, but humble moderation.
  4. Shirk any unnecessary monthly bills – cable, gym, phone data going to waste, extra cars.
  5. Fix things yourself, even if it’s a struggle and takes “forever” – you’ll be far more prepared the next time, more skilled, and more knowledgeable.
  6. Start early.  The more extra money you put toward your loan sooner the less interest you will pay over time. New home buyers pay the most interest.  People on their 20th year aren’t paying nearly as much in interest (because they already have).  Your mortgage amortization schedule is designed to collect the profit (from you) early and brutally.  At one point in our loan, our monthly interest was nearly $1300.  All profit for the bank.

Andrea told our story in much more detail on here writing blog, which I’d invite you to read for more information.


It contains most the pertinent details to how we reduced and applied money to our loan, including the handful of windfalls we acquired  (which made the difference of 8 1/2 years to 7, by estimate).  We did this because we don’t like the stress of owing money, we wanted to plan for retirement, and we just wanted to test ourselves as far as what we could go without.  We’ve never been into caustic environmental consumption, and even developed a healthy sense of guilt when we must reluctantly buy something new from the store, which may or may not have plastic parts, manufactured who knows where with dubious regard to human rights.  It’s a challenge to cut ourselves off completely in our society, and for most of us our only salvation is to minimize frequency.

After going a few years with a strict spending diet, we’ve felt no desire to increase consumption post-mortgage.  We still live a frugal existence and have discovered that we prefer it that way.

It’s not about suffering, as some are wont to call it, or restricting your life, or depriving yourself from the joys and experiences of life.  In some ways it was a discovery of what truly is needed to enjoy the day and be happy.  And because people have ranted at us before (ahem, Reddit users), I just want to make it clear: if you don’t want to do some or any or all of this stuff, than don’t.  That’s fine.  Don’t torture yourself.  And it’s not necessary to post a comment saying you don’t want to get your hands in the dirt to grow your own tomatoes or ride your bike to work.  Every person/household has a different need/value structure, and are fit to deem what they can and cannot go without, and how much work they are willing to put in after their day jobs.   There’s also a chance your situation isn’t good, or you have more obligations.  Be gentle on yourself, and know that any amount of savings and earning is a win.  A 15-20 year mortgage is still a success compared to 30 years.

We’ll get back to gardening soon.  Cheers,



People can get pretty creative with how they arrange a garden in a backyard with limited space.  Many adopt some variant of square foot gardening, companion gardening, or running vertical pallets along the fence-line.  For us?  We decided the less lawn the better.  And that more plants and produce were a perfectly sound way to decorate the backyard, in lieu of a manicured water-hogging greenery.

Here’s what our garden area looked like before expanding.

overhead garden

Bird’s eye-view of pre-expansion garden.

It took nearly two audio books to cut, pile and discard about 80 square feet of sod, but at least I wasn’t in want of exercise that week.  And here’s what it looks like now.


Today’s garden with two tracks added.

Raised garden beds are awesome, but we didn’t want to obstruct the entire view across the backyard by having everything lifted 3 feet off the ground (this all depends on how your backyard is arranged, and where your viewing point is out your window(s)).  Therefore, we went with the walking garden, flat off the ground, just like in the good old days.  Granted, we imported a lot of soil, added a ton of gypsum, and manually rototilled until we nearly forgot the meaning of life.    The new tracks might best be described as mounds, raised off the ground by several inches with heavy compost.

So here’s how we did this.

1.KILLING THE LAWN.  If the most time you spend with you lawn is mowing it into tidy, shaven patches that require more water than anything else on your property, then you’re probably best off doing away with it.  We didn’t just want more food and more crop diversity, we happen to think a well-kept kale patch is far more attractive than something you’re not even allowed to (and morally shouldn’t) water during drought.  I removed the lawn using one of these:Rasenkantenstecher_lawnedger_coppergardentool_pksbronze


You can rent a machine and do it much faster, but that depends how big your project is, whether you have access to a truck, how much you’re willing to spend, and how much time you’re willing to dedicate.  We did it by hand because it was a smaller area, no truck, and I don’t mind getting a good workout.  The soil should be semi-soft, so picking the season to remove the lawn matters, unless you want to water it heavily before you start.  Step the half-circle of the tool straight down through the lawn, one after the other, until you have a line all the way across the lawn.  Then cut another line about 12 inches away so that you’ve cut a strip of lawn.  Just imagine that you’re cutting strips of sod out of your lawn.  Yank the strip out, grass dirt, and the plastic mesh that’s probably underneath, roll it up, set it aside, and repeat.  A minute to master, forever to complete (kidding, but it is tough labor).

2. CULTIVATE THE PLANTING AREA.  We chose to form tracks for our garden because we planned on using drip-line irrigation. Even if you’re planning on importing the soil, it’s a good idea to break into the ground to allow for maximum depth and to reach down where the water will remain in the high temperatures.  If it’s clay, add gypsum.  Again, rototiller machines exist if you’re acquainted with such luxuries.  I used a shovel and my shoulders, and probably more of my back that I intended.


We created tracks to allow for simple drip-line irrigation.

Mix good soil in with clay (or whatever you have) and then add a lot more good soil on top.  This is one of those things where you might see soil improvement a few growing seasons.

3. MULCH THE PERIMETER.  No special advice here.  I think you all know how to shovel bark and move it around. Buy it in bulk from a bulk distributor to save money.  There, I’ve justified my existence.

How did this work?  Well, it worked OK the first year, but not terrific.  Our soil is made of hard, impacted clay, but we’ve gradually had more success each season.  Some plants break up the soil better than others, like sunflowers, so those would be great additions.  Each year we add more organic compost and the conditions get better an better.