Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Peanut Butter!

I should probably start this blog with an explanation because, though most of you are moving over here to follow me from my last blog jus2years.blogspot.com, I'm hoping the readership will spread to folks who may not know me yet.

So, for those of you who've been around here awhile, you can skip this intro unless you just wanna read it again.

I'm not going to go into too many specific events, but instead invite you to go to the other blog and catch up if you want specifics and details. What I do want to do is tell you what I'm doing and why.

What I'm doing (and why):

All of my life I wanted to be middle class (though I didn't know that's what it was called). I spent my childhood and adolescence living a pretty transient life. My mom was young and didn't have a lot of focus when I was a baby and young child (been there, done that, right?), so she moved around a lot. Then, later, when she FOUND her focus, it was to do a job that kept her on the move. It was HARD, HARD, migrant work. She lived in her truck, worked "like a man", came home covered in dirt and only had sponge baths (except for the rare occasion she got a hotel--even the CHEAPEST motel was considered a LUXURIOUS expense--where she could get a shower, and she ate around a campfire. A lot of Frito Pie, chili mac, beans, ramens and canned food. She did this so she could send money home to the church people who had agreed to take care of my sister and myself.

When I was 12, my mother took us to live with her on the road. At that point, she had a camper on the back of a pickup. She and my sister shared a bed and each night, I turned our table into a bed and slept on that. We had a small, two burner stove. We had a sink (but we mostly ate on paper plates, so it was to wash silverware and pots/pans. We had a toilet in a closet but we so seldom made it to dump spots, that we never used the toilet unless he HAD to. Instead, we went out into the woods as long as it was warm enough and we were in a fairly snake-free campsite. My sister and I did an accelerated home school. I loved that life. I saw it as an adventure. And in spite of our transient existence, I excelled at school. My sister, on the other hand, HATED it.

My sister and I were night and day. She very much wanted to fit in (as most pre-teens do) and really didn't have much opportunity to do so. I, on the other hand, revelled in my "difference"... I had NO problem talking to strangers, so I made friends wherever we went. The one thing my sister and I had in common was that we both hoped that eventually we would live in a "neighborhood." To us, a neighborhood was NOT a collection of vagabond migrant workers huddled around a central campfire. A neighborhood was square. Lots of squares, actually, with lawns, maybe chain link fences with dogs running in the background. Neighbors who have pools. Who wash their cars out in the driveway. You know. We wanted to be like the Bradys but were more like Rosanne on wheels. This didn't affect me as much as my sister. Not right away.

It was when I hit college. When I looked around and saw just how different I was. When my classmates and cohorts talked about their public school experiences. Their proms, yearbooks, graduation ceremonies. When teacher gave instructions and most of the students in the room just immediately jumped in to work and I had to have things re-explained. When people worked well in groups and I didn't know how (because I had spent so much time working on my own... I essentially taught MYSELF from the age of 12... and I graduated at the age of 16). This is when I felt the pain and urgent "wanna"s of being middle class. That probably fueled my lifelong pre-disposition of wanting to go to France.

Let me back up and talk about the two years I lived with my grandparents. By the time I was 14, my mom had gotten us into a more stable situation. We had a trailer. Okay, so there were still wheels on my home. But it was up on blocks and if I remember correctly, we had it trimmed at the bottom. We had a set of concrete stairs to get in and out of the "house" and in my opinion, that's stability. *grin* But, that was right about the time I hit my teenage rebellion/sneaking out phase. My mom still had to go away for work. She had to stay away sometimes for three weeks at a time. I stayed home and took care of things. Answered the business phone, checked the mail, cooked the meals. I did home school and my sister went to public school (my home school was a series of self-taught workbooks, so I didn't need any supervision or help).

That kind of freedom, while I probably deserved it because I hadn't ever given my mother reason to doubt me, was very difficult for me. I was expected to be responsible, but I didn't really have any freedoms. So, instead of rebelling, I just got sneaky. My mom would call home every night around 6pm to check on us. I'd wait until after that call and then go out with my boyfriend and run around town. Some days, I even bribed my sister to skip school and stay home to answer the phone so I could go somewhere for the whole day--call it delegating authority, if you will.

ANYWAY, that escalated into some pretty reckless behavior. And of course, eventually, I got caught. My mom sent my sister and myself to live with my grandparnets in the woods of Arkansas so that she could spend the summer with her long-time, off-and-on, boyfriend. At the time, I was FURIOUS and very hurt. But when I look back on it, I feel like she was totally justified in doing that.

My grandparents lived in the woods and had since the early 80's. They lived in a barn-shaped house that they had built themselves from lumber they got tearing down another house. They had no electricity, no running water, no telephone. I had spent a lot of my childhood there in a trailer just up the hill, so going to live with them was like going "home." Still, I PINED for my friends and boyfriend in Georgia (where we had been living in our trailer).

Over that summer, my grandparents got us into a pretty regular routine: We woke with the sun, ate corn flakes with honey and milk, and got up to the garden. We pulled weeds, carried water from the spring (in 5 gallon buckets or in 2 gallon watering cans), whatever jobs that needed to be done. We did this until it got too hot to work outside. But THEN, we went back to the house to work on our homework or house work until lunch time. Then we ate lunch. Then we had some free time. But as soon as it got cool again, we were back at some kind of work.

I remember we hardly ever went grocery shopping. We only had a gas-powered camper refrigerator where we kept milk, butter, sauces, cheese, eggs and, occasionally, meat. Most of what we ate came from the garden. In fact, when it came time for a meal, they'd send me up to the garden to harvest broccoli, squash, lettuce, tomatoes, etc. We'd wash them and then eat them right away. I didn't know how great I had it.

So, flash back forward to college and thereafter. I worked so hard to transform myself into what I had always thought I wanted to be. I worked toward having a square. With my own little lawn and a fence and a driveway. And, it took me ten years, but I finally got it (and relatively young). But, strangely enough, I wasn't happy. I started to miss the lifestyle of my childhood. Mainly because I was now a mother. I watched my children play inside on our tile floors, turning on the TV any time I wanted them out of my hair. Eating out of plastic bags and boxes of food bought at the supermarket. I started to want more for my kids. I wanted to get them away from the squares. Away from the toxins. The polluted Houston air. The nightly mosquito-sprayer truck. The four Hummers in our neighborhood.

So, I talked my husband into changing jobs and getting away from oil. We moved to North Carolina. I started to buy cloth bags. I stopped using my dishwasher. I started recycling and cooking more at home. I started really pining for a hybrid car and more efficient appliances. I started using cloth diapers. I wanted to go as green as I could, taking little steps at a time. So, I went to the library and checked out books on going green.

One of those books was Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. It changed me forever. I decided I wanted a farm. I wanted it RIGHT THEN.

We found out we were moving to France for two years. I figured it would be an opportunity to save up our money, research how to grow all our own stuff (on our eventual farm that we would buy), practice preserving the seasonal bounty we bought at our local organic farmers' market (freezing, drying, and canning) and practice making everything ourselves. I got a vision of what I wanted: To have a hand in EVERY step of our food. From planting to harvesting, to cooking and carrying it to the table. I wanted to grow the wheat that I would mill into flour that I would turn into bread and pie crust and fresh pasta. And I'd need a place to do it.

There was some reluctance from my husband (to say the LEAST). But, after I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle to him (which was much more time efficient than waiting around on him to read it himself), he too was convinced that we needed to move away from the city. It didn't turn him into a farmer at heart yet, but he conceded that we were done with the city. That our kids should grow up in the woods.

We looked on-line at land near where we lived in North Carolina and our hopes were dashed. There would be no way we could buy land there (and we needed to be THERE in order to live somewhere close enough for Sam to keep his job). It was way too expensive. So, I started looking around the country to see where other offices of his company were located and how much the land was around them.

Finally, it looked like Lynchburg, Virginia would be the absolute best compromise. It has an office, it's rural, there're several colleges/universities there and nearby, it's only a 3-hour drive to see our friends in NC and, most importantly to Sam, the land is CHEAP!!! I started looking on-line at potential farms in the surrounding area. Looking for a 15-20 acre plot with or without a house (hey, I'm no stranger to living in a trailer and would have GLADLY done it again if it meant I could have some land).

We saw some great places and decided to plan our two-week vacation from France around visits to possible farms. Our goal was to visit already established farms in order to see what farms looked like in the area--farms committed to natural living, organic growing, hormone-free/free-range animal husbandry. Our SECONDARY goal was to visit a few of the plots of land for sale just to see what they looked like and how far away they were from Sam's job.

And we found one. And we fell in love. And we were filling out paperwork when we discovered a dealbreaker about the land (I won't get into it but it involves the sex offender registry--and YES, we checked to make sure it wasn't just a wayward teenager having consentual sex with his/her girlfriend). I was devastated.

But the next day, we found our homestead. An A-Frame house on 32 acres of woods in Rustburg. Only a 25 minute drive from Sam's job. All Sam wanted was a house in the woods and all I wanted was some land to plant vegetables on. And there it was. So, we bought it.

To make a long story short (cuz, this "summary" is running a little long, dontcha think? get used to that. I write like I talk. And I talk too much.)--cuz if you wanna know ALL the details that brought me here early, go check out the other blog--I came back to the States before the end of our two-years in France.

My goal is still the same. To get that garden going. We'll do vegetables and ground fruits this year. (and we might start fruit trees). We'll work on getting chickens started next year (finances allowing). Eventually, I want goats for cheese, rabbits and quail for meat and guinea fowl for meat and pest control. If I can buy grains locally (and OG--organically grown), I will, but if not, I eventually want to sow my own fields of grain so I can mill it myself and complete the cycle.

Flash to the present....

So, the past few days, I've been assembling all the little tools I need to get started. I bought a post-hole digger, a couple of shovels, a potato fork, a cultivator, a flat rake, a leaf rake and a wheel barrel. I also bought some good sturdy work gloves and a couple of watering cans. I got a soil test kit and some peat seed starting cups. I just had gall bladder removal surgery less than two weeks ago, so I've been in the house, biding my time, DYING to get out there and work every time the sun broke through.

Then, the other day, I saw a cardinal. I felt the itch even stronger.

This morning, I heard the sure sign. The Joelie Bird. You'll think me crazy and I still haven't found out what the bird is really called, but I swear to goodness that bird says, "Joelie! Joelie! Joelie!....... We need you! We need you! We need you!" I've been calling it the Joelie bird since I was a teenager. And when I hear it, I know that it's spring/summer. So, when I heard it this morning, I took it as a good sign to get started. I already feel like I'm getting a late start but I didn't want to get out there for fear of busting open my incision sites. I couldn't hold back any longer.

I started out this morning just wanting to go down to where I wanna start the Dream Garden and do a soil test to see if we'll need to amend the soil. From the deck, the Dream Garden looked like a nice flat patch of grass covered by a few whisps of leaves. But when I got DOWN there, I realized that looking at things from the deck is like using rose-colored glasses. The area was COVERED in tree debris. Logs, sticks, twigs and leaves. How was I supposed to get a representative soil sample with all of that crap everywhere? So, I decided to put the soil testing idea off until tomorrow (the test instructions say you have to let the soil dry overnight anyway to get a good sample) and spend the morning cleaning.

I got out my rakes and my wheel barrel (who we're affectionately calling "Big Red")and my gloves and my sickly (strep) sidekick and his tools and headed out to the Dream Garden.

Let me tell you, starting out, I felt like a new kid in class. Like I was bumbling around with no clear focus on what I was doing or supposed to be doing. All I knew was that I needed to get all that crap out of my garden. So, I started piling it up in Big Red. I knew I wanted to get all the stick and twigs and logs UP near the end of the drive way because I plan to rent a chipper here in the next few weeks. I'm not much of a burner. I prefer to chip the brush and sticks and just compost them for later than to send 'em smoking up into the air--what a waste of great organic matter, you know? Plus, Big Red was a hard horse to break. That first trip up the hill liked to kick my ticker. I thought, "Crap! Making the brush pile up this hill was a STUPID idea!" It really wasn't. It was brilliance, of course, because it would be MUCH easier to get the chipper up there than to drag it down to the garden. That griping was my back and body talking (and a teensy bit, my incision sites).

After a couple of hours (essentially, quitting time) I got the hang of it. I got all the tree debris cleared (my sidekick helped me for, oh, I'd say a short half hour before he decided his time would be better spent drawing a PICTURE of me working with Big Red while he waved at me from the deck) and it only took about 15 Big Red-loads!

Then, I marked off where I wanted the main part of the growing field to be and raked the surface into about 15 or so leaf piles. I want to keep the leaves because, yep, you guessed it, they make great compost. So, that's what I did for day one. I got the place cleared. I figure tomorrow I'll get the wire rings for where I want to do the leaf compost piles. I'll also start to actually tear into the soil. I'll turn the grass that's there, shake off the soil and throw the grass into the compost pile. Then, when I have things nice and cultivated and leveled out, I'll take a few soil samples and lay them out to dry.

I think I'll spend the evening looking at the seed catalog on the Seeds for Change website. They'r a company who sells heirloom varieties (seeds that have been around for ages and ages and ages and haven't been genetically modified to do anything) from organically raised plants. I really wanted to do as much as I could locally, but this company seems pretty worthy of my money. And then next year, because my plants won't be on the Monsanto tit, I'll be able to harvest my OWN seeds from my existing plants and then replant them next year!!!

As an anecdote, I have to tell you... When I was a kid, I was deathly afraid of bees and wasps and well, all flying, buzzing, stinging things. When I say "afraid" I mean utterly phobic. I used to (okay, I still do) run around screaming and then simply pass out at just the SIGHT of them. I'm a little, TEENSY bit better about it as an adult, but not much. ANYWAY, when I was a kid, my elders told me that the fastest, most efficient way to get rid of an unwanted flying buzzer was to shout "peanut butter" in its direction. I don't know WHY it worked, but it did.

So, while I'm out there working and my sidekick is playing with his trucks near a log at the outer border of the Dream Garden, my sidekick jumps up and starts running. "WASPS!!! Mom, there are wasps here!!!" I told him everything all my elders had told me when I was little--that they're more afraid of you than you are of them, that they won't bother you if you don't bother them, that there's nothing to be afraid of. None of that worked. He still did a very familiar "wasp dance" whenever one came close to him. So, I told him about the Peanut Butter Trick. So, there we were, wherever we went, both of us shouting "Peanut Butter." Wonder what the neighbors would think.

Pics of Day One of the Dream Garden project:


Sickly Sidekick and Big Red

Sickly Sidekick making an effort with his tiny rake.

Big Red and Betsy the Leaf Rake (my co-workers)

AFTER pics (piles of leaves to be harvested for tomorrow's leaf composting venture)

AND.... a little spot we like to call "Out Front":

The Sickly Sidekick waving

First daffodils of pre-spring!!!


  1. Congrats, Joelie! Yeah! So excited for you. I don't grow anything (plants have trouble thriving in my household), so I'm excited to follow along and learn what you learn...from my condo in the city ;-)

  2. Thanks Kat! We'll learn together. Almost everything I know I'm learning from books as I go, LOL! I mean, everything I learned as a young'un living with the Grands is all back in a gardening closet in my mind... all dusty and cobwebby. I'm hoping it'll all come back to me as I go along.