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Posts Tagged Sustainable

How To Prepare Soil For Vegetable Gardens

Having taught people to garden for years, many people want to know how to prepare their soil so they can start a vegetable garden.  If you talk to people who have been growing for years, you’ll notice they spend a lot of time building the soil in their garden beds.

prep soil to grow foods

For first time gardeners I always recommend to start small and because each patch of dirt is different, I recommend starting with a raised beds, which is nothing more than building a bed of soil on top of the ground instead of in it.  You can add sides made out of wood, edging or other materials as a side wall, but it isn’t required, mounded dirt works just as well if you’re on a budget.

Building A Raised Bed Frame

For most people they want to have the tidy look of a wooden frame and it can be done quickly for little money.  Start with three 2×6’s and cut one of them in half.  This will form the four sides of the bed and create a bed that is 4 feet wide by 8 feet long.

raised bed garden

This is an ideal size because it minimizes the number of cuts (pro tip: big box stores will cut it for free for you) and at four feet, you can reach to the middle from either side without having to stretch too much.  A few screws will make a solid frame for you to fill in the dirt with.

Turn The Soil Below

turn soil with pitchforkEven though we are going to build a bed above the ground, we want to break up the soil below it so that our plant’s roots have an easier time of penetrating the ground as they grow.  Ideally you would shovel off the top layer if it is grass, but I’ve done it both ways.  Removing the grass below will help reduce weeds coming up later, so it’s often worth the effort.

If the soil is pretty bare, what I’ll do is rake the top then go buy a gallon jug of white vinegar to douse the little bits of weeds or grass with the vinegar to kill a few days before I build my bed.  White vinegar will work well to kill the weeds in spot treatments, but if you have more than 10% coverage, I’d just scrape the top off completely.

The last part is take a “digging fork” and just break up the top few inches of soil, it can be pretty chunky because we’re going to cover it all with our soil bed mix soon anyway.  Don’t get too tied up in making it perfect, this is a really a rough pass that we do quickly and move on.

Mixing The Perfect Soil To Grow In

First off, there are many different options here and if you ask 100 people you’ll get 101 recommendations.  So understand that if someone uses something different, that’s fine.  For most people just starting out I try to make it really simple and we can get into more of the nuances later.  So use this mix to start and in a few years, start to try different things.  We want to get you to gardening as quickly as we can and if you get caught up in what mix is the best, you’ll never actually start gardening.

raised bed soil mixture for good growing a garden

So I use a mix of compost, vermiculite, and peat moss. Typically I buy for a single 4 foot by 8 foot bed that’s around 6 inches deep the following:

  • 10 bags of compost (one cubic foot size bags)
  • 1 bale of compressed peat moss (three cubic feet size)
  • 1 bag of vermiculite (4 cubic foot sized bags).
  • 1 small bag of Bone Meal
  • 1 small bag of Blood Meal

If you don’t know what these are, just print this post off and bring it with you to any big box store, they’ll know exactly what you need from this list.  If the employee doesn’t know these items, it’s best to find someone else because these are gardening 101 supplies.


mushroom compsting mixFor compost you’ll find a lot of different options, my favorite is “mushroom compost” which you can find bags at any big box hardware store.  A close second is “Black Kow” compost.  I’ll often grab a few of each to make up my 10 bags for my bed.

If you can’t find these specific ones, it really isn’t a big deal, use whatever compost you can find at your local store or garden center.  Compost provides a lot of nutrients to your plants and serves as the base for seeds to root into.


bag of vermiculiteVermiculite is essentially rock dust crushed up, it provides a lot of minerals for your plants, but it’s main function is to act like a sponge for water.  Be sure not to get confused with perlite, it’s not the same.  This one might take some calling around to find, if there is a local gardening group they might have some good leads.

I will also add a note here that if you start searching around about vermiculite, you’ll inevitably run into an old timer that will make the point about asbestos in vermiculite.  This is something that we had to worry about 40 years ago, but today there is no source allowed in the USA or Canada that doesn’t carefully screen and test for this.  The myth still persists today, but you should have zero concerns because the industry has long made changes to prevent this.

Often garden centers or seed/farm supply places carry it.  I’ve even seen it in small bags at your big box hardware stores.  If you can’t find it consider purchasing a few bags off of Amazon, while it’s a bit more expensive locally, you can buy a few of these bags of vermiculite and be good for a 4×8 bed.

Peat Moss

package of peat moss or spagnum mossThe last part of the soil mix.  This fluffs up the soil, allows for good oxygen infiltration and also acts like a sponge to hold in moisture until plants need it.  This can be found anywhere and they type or brand doesn’t matter.  The only thing I’ll suggest is make sure you get it from the soils section where you’d find your bags of compost or near the bags of mulch section.  Sometimes they sell small bags that are meant for growing orchids, these are often expensive, but the ones in the bagged compost section is usually sold “compressed” for very cheap ($10-$20 for 3 cubic feet compressed).

A common question that comes up around peat moss are concerns about if peat moss is sustainable.  It is true that 10 years ago peat moss was harvested from natural wet lands, but today it is done in a manner that is regenerative.  If you are still concerned, consider sourcing coconut coir which is a material similar to peat moss but made from the waste product of coconut husks.  In the end, I suggest you don’t get too caught up in your first year or so, just get your first year under your belt and then work on improving in later years.

Bone And Blood Meal

I prefer to use bone meal and blood meal, but there are many options.  Obviously from their names, they are a animal sourced product.  Those wanting a non-animal source can try seaweed meal or fertilize, you can buy seaweed fertilizer here.  Bone and blood meal are organic sources of the major nutrient (NPK: Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium).

bone meal and blood meal in bags

Since we are starting out with such good ingredients, we don’t need much of these.  If we were starting with the soil in ground, there may be need for more as directed from a soil test, but since we are building our own soil we don’t need a soil test for our first year or two.  I start out with one large handful of each, mixed evenly across the whole 4×8 raised bed.

Mixing It All Together

Some people will use a tarp to mix the soil together, I just skip that and dump everything in a pile in the framed bed, then mix with my hands or a shovel.  If you choose compost that is moist, but not sopping wet it will mix easier.  Sometimes this means pulling off the top few bags at the garden supply place so you get to a lower layer of bags that haven’t soaked up any recent rain.

Here is my basic approach:

  • Take your peat moss bale and place it in the bed
  • With a shovel stab the plastic in a line to break open the bale
  • Turn it over to dump the peat on the ground and remove the plastic
  • Shake out half your vermiculite on top of the peat moss, set the rest aside
  • Grab one large handful each of bone meal and blood meal, sprinkle across the bed
  • Place a bag of compost in the bed, stab with shovel to dump on the pile
  • Repeat with compost about half your bags
  • Using the shovel and hands, mix it all up until it’s well mixed
  • Add remaining materials and mix it all up
  • smooth out the top and give the soil a brief water

How To Water Your Garden

You want to water it a few days before you plant if you can, this will let all the water to absorb into the peat moss and vermiculite.  Water for a count of five and then stop.  Again, counting to five, if the water fully absorbs into the soil so there is no sheen on the dirt from the water, water again for a count of five. repeat counting to five until the water doesn’t absorb all the way in five seconds.  This is a good indicator that the soil is nicely saturated with moisture, but not soaking.

how to water your garden and vegitables

In the end building your soil will set you up for success for years to come.  Following this formula and starting small, you will have a better drastically easier time because we’re not trying to fix our existing soil or battle weeds.  Start with one 4×8 bed, then next year go a little bigger.  The number one thing I see is new gardeners burning out their first year because they took on too big of a garden.

Your Turn!

  • What are your garden plans this year?
  • What tips have you learned?

Getting Started With Chickens

Chickens are, as I like to put it, the gateway animal.  You start out with chickens and then all a sudden you have your eye on a few goals, a couple pigs and maybe even a mini Dexter cow.  I have had chickens several times through out my life and always loved having them around. Even years ago when I got my first chickens I made a lot of success very quickly and the entire process was a lot of fun.

starting with chickens

The nice thing about keeping chickens is they are quite easy to take care of, requires a few minutes a day to tend, in a pinch can be left for a long weekend and if you travel you can teach someone to take care of them quickly.  Of course as with any animal, owning chickens you need to take it seriously and make sure you understand that their welfare is your responsibility, so make sure to consider it carefully.

Know Your Local Laws

The first thing you need to do before you do anything is make sure that keeping chickens is allowed.  You’ll need to check with the local authorities, see if you have any rules in your home owners association or deed restrictions and then also consider your neighbors.

golden comet chicken In my city I’m allowed to have up to 50 birds per acre, the coop must be offset from any property line by 15 feet and obtain a permit for $10 a year.  Your city or town may be different, so make sure you do your homework!

Learn All You Can

Obviously if you’re reading this post, you want to learn about starting a chicken farm and it may even be because you’re thinking about getting chickens of your own (go for it!).  Use this post as a jumping off point to learn as much as you can about the various aspects of chickens.  You’re going to make mistakes and that is okay, we are learning, so don’t beat yourself up if you’re doing your best to care for these animals.

Get Setup Ahead Of Time

Once you’ve researched your local laws you want to get setup with some basic infrastructure.  You’re going to need a few things so you can be ready for your chickens.  You should consider the following


If you’re going to raise chickens from freshly hatched babies (chicks) you will need what is called a brooder.  A brooder is like a nursery for the chicks where we protect them a little bit more, give them some added heat and let them grow a bit before you let them out into the real world.  I typically do this in a large Rubbermaid tub with a heat lamp and some bedding.

We have a whole post on how to set up a brooder and raise chicks. Below is a video I have of some baby quail I raised a few years ago from eggs. Their setup was a bit simpler, but you get the idea.

Build A Coop

A coop is just what we call the house we keep our chickens in at night.  During the day we will let them free range (go were ever they want) or let them into a run (a fenced area that provides some protection).  The coop needs to be about 2 square feet for each chicken you have.  Much more than 2-3 feet per bird assuming they have more room to range during the day doesn’t do much because they all like to pile on a roost and cuddle up with each other anyway.

chicken on roost in coopA roost is just a bar that chickens like to sit on, usually about a foot or so off the floor of the coop or ground.  I’ve had chickens that all piled onto a single bar leaving several empty and then I’ve had others that didn’t use them at all.  I usually add them because it seems like most chickens like to roost because it makes them feel a little safer.  The top most roost is often taken up by the alpha hen and the rooster if you have one, but some flocks don’t get too tied up in pecking order.

You want to make sure that there is at least some ventilation, but make sure it hardware cloth over it so predators can’t get in. The rule of thumb is around 1 square foot of ventilation per 10 square feet of coop.

The last parts of a coop are your nesting boxes for the chickens to lay their eggs in (usually one box per 3-4 birds) and some sort of bedding to catch droppings from.  Chickens put out a lot of droppings and they tend to concentrate under the roost bars.  However you plan to handle droppings, make it bomb proof because it can get messy quickly and if you build your coop to easily clean out, you can make your life a lot easier.  More on coops coming soon.

Chicken Tractors And Chicken Runs

Many people who want to get into raising chickens want to try a mobile chicken tractor, which is basically a coop with no bottom that you move to fresh grass every few days.  I’ve done both a fixed coop and chicken tractors and I think chicken tractors are my favorite because it cuts down on the cleaning (no floors, the chickens just poop on the grass) and it reduces the amount of feed I need to buy.

Here is my old chicken tractor:

chicken tractor

There are a few things you need to consider if you decide to go the chicken tractor.  Whatever coop you design it should be able to be moved easily by the smallest person in your household, it makes it difficult if only some of the people can actually move it each day.

Finally make sure you have enough room, if you have more than a few chickens you’ll need to move that coop most days so that the chickens do remove all the vegetation in that one spot to the point that it can’t bounce back.  You want the grass to get roughed up a bit, but no more.  This will let the grass bounce back and grow stronger.  Having enough space is easier in the summer months because things grow so quickly, but in the winter you may find that a spot where the chickens were takes 30-60 days to heal.

Life And Death On The Farmstead

With any animals it’s great to have animals around your yard, it can bring a lot of good energy, fun and happiness.  The other side of the coin is that with life comes the end of if.  Sometimes chickens get sick, sometimes a predator circumvents our fences, or they might just grow old and die.

hens and a rooster

For good caretakers these days are few and far between, but it is a reality of this lifestyle.  When I bought my first chicks I ended up with several roosters despite me trying to avoid it.  As they grew they began to struggle for dominance as the alpha rooster.  It was at that point I had tried giving them away, but couldn’t find anyone that would take them even for free.  As they fought I knew the only outcome was that there would be only one alpha and the rest would suffer injuries or death from the skirmishes that were taking place.

It was then I realized they would end up being pecked to death by the alpha rooster.  I wasn’t comfortable with a prolonged and painful death, so I made the decision to process them for meat.  It was a difficult and somber affair as I did the deed, and while I was resolved in my mind, it didn’t make it any easier as I placed them in the kill cone and nicked their artery with a knife.

Just understand that it’s mostly good, but there are a few bad days too.

Self Sufficiency

Not only is keeping chickens pretty easy and a lot of fun, but the eggs and potentially meat are a solid first step into self sufficiency.  If you think about it, we grow a lot of things in out garden and while they are loaded with nutrients, vitamins and minerals, they are often very low in calories or protein.  It’s great to eat healthy, but if we want to make our way to self sufficiency, we need to figure a way to cover our caloric and protein needs too and eggs help in that goal.

nutrition in a farm eggAs you can see an egg has some good calories and a fair bit of protein and you get an egg per chicken each day in many cases.  Compare that to a tomato which can take 90 days to grow and only has 22 calories.

Having a few eggs a day for breakfast or a quiche for lunch or dinner is a great way to start making up some of the calories that we need, which means we don’t have to rely on the grocery store as much.  Eggs can even be a way to make a few bucks to cover the cost of feed and if you ever need a chicken sitter, them keeping the eggs is often compensation enough.

Letting Chickens Work For You

my chickens in my gardenNot only are chickens a great source of food, but they can be helpful in reducing your work load.  Chickens by their nature scratch at the dirt, root for bugs and grubs, and till up the first inch of soil.  We can utilizing their natural tendencies to get things done in our gardens. Setting chickens loose on compost piles will be like letting a child loose in a candy shop.  They’ll turn the compost, peck out any grubs and bugs (breaking the pest life cycle) and add their manure to the pile all in one fell swoop.

I’ll often move my chickens to my garden area before I begin to prep the garden for a new season.  Since my garden area is fenced in for deer, I set them up there for a month and let them take everything to bare dirt.  If there are any perennial plants or plants I want to keep, I’ll just fence them off so the chickens can get to them.  After a few weeks the ground is often removed of weeds, bugs and a fair bit of manure has been scratched into the soil.

Chickens are a really great first step into bringing animals into the mix on your land and they have a lot of upsides.   So if you are thinking about chickens, check out some of the other post here on the site and let us know in the comments what your plans are!

Your Turn!

  • What seems like the biggest challenge for you when it comes to chickens?
  • What are your chicken plans?


How To Start Homesteading On A Budget

Ever since I was a very young kid, I knew that I wanted to have a little place of my own, to own land were I could enjoy being outside.  That never feeling never left through the years.  So starting a homestead, finding a place for your tiny house or just a little piece to call your own can seem really challenging at times.

how to start a homestead on a budget

For some they just want to start homesteading right where they are, it’s just a matter of figuring out how to do it. For others is just finding the time to make it happen.

So what are we supposed to do when we’re on a budget and all we want to do is start building a life for ourselves?

Get Clear On Your Goals

writing in notebookThe biggest mistake I see people make is they haven’t really defined what they want to do in 1 year, 5 years and so on.  When you get very clear on what you want, you can quickly determine what you actually need in your future stead and where you are going.  Too often people don’t set goals which means they are getting pulled in a million directions.

If you actually write out your goals you gain clarity and you will have a standard to evaluate how you spend your time and resources.  When you have clear goals you can ask yourself “does this get me closer to my goals?”   If the answer is yes, then you should pursue it.  If the answer is no or maybe, then you should say no to whatever it is.

Having goals means you don’t waste money on things that you don’t need and focus the money you do have on hand to the things that will actually let you do what you want to do.  Too often people spend money on things they think they want, but haven’t taken the time to determine if that’s right for them.

Simplify Your Life

Closely tied with my last point, work to actively encourage things in your life that are aligned with your goals, then reject everything else.  This can be difficult, but with some practice and keeping your eye on the prize you can cut out all the stuff that doesn’t matter.

simplify your life quote

From there look at ways to make every day easier and less complicated.  Declutter your home, regain control over your calendar, cut out unnecessary expenses and focus on what matters to you.  This is a long process, but as you bring the important things into focus and remove the things that eat up your time that don’t matter, you’ll find you have more time, less stress, and life seems to flow better.

Take The Long Road

It can be tempting to make the leap now, but if we accept that this is a journey and we need to sort things in our life before we get to our destination.  We realize that we’re putting in the hard work to make our dream possible so that when we do arrive, we are able to really enjoy it fully.  If we rush through it we’ll start homesteading stressed, in debt, and being pulled in a million directions.

take the road less traveledSome of the biggest goals I’ve achieved were only enjoyed because I worked on everything as I made my way there.  When I moved into my tiny house I wanted to have a simpler life, less clutter from possessions, on my way to being debt free and in a really good place in my life and career. If I hadn’t worked to make those things a reality, the experience of going tiny would have been very stressful.

The other thing to know is that a lot of what you want to do requires a lot of new knowledge and experience, which you can start gathering now!  Choose the areas you want to focus on first (goal setting) and find a way to learn more about those areas.  It could be checking a book out of the library, it could be making friends with a local farmer or homesteader and asking if you can help out for free.

A lot of what I learned was from a farmer who I helped weed beds.  As we moved along his raised beds, I would ask lots of questions and we’d talk about various things on his farm that I wanted to know more about.  It was a big help to him, I learned a lot and it filled the time while we were weeding.

Starting Your Homestead Where You Are

For many people when they get really clear on their goals and realize that the whole thing is a journey, they realize that the land they are on is actually a really good place to start for them for where they are in their journey.  Most of us just starting out don’t have many of the skills needed to run a full fledged homestead, so starting small is perfect because we can build our skills so we can later apply them to a larger piece of land.

gardening in your back yard

Start with baby steps as you build out your homestead and if you don’t own the land, consider how you can develop the land in ways that you can take them with you when you upgrade or move.  Portable infrastructure is key when you don’t own your land or the land you’re on is a stepping stone to your final destination.  Things like water systems, shelters for animals, fencing, and even garden beds all can be made to move if need be.

So look around where you are right now, could you start a raised bed?  What about container gardening?  Is there a way you could buy two chickens and learn the ins an outs of raising them?  Be open to possibilities and bring creativity to your situation.

Buying Land With Little Or No Money

For many of us it’s all about finding some land we can call our own.  Land can be very expensive and while we want to grow things, money isn’t one thing we can grow in our gardens.  So how can we buy land without much money?

Rent To Own

rent to own signMost of us are paying something right now for wherever we are living.  It could be rent or a mortgage, but whatever the case is, we actually do have money, it’s just not allocated in the right direction.   What if we were to find some land where we could start renting now and the rent goes towards ownership?

There are many landlords that will consider this, especially when they’ve been trying to sell it for a long time or it’s bare land.  This is sometimes referred to as “owners financing”.  The beauty of this is we often can get in on a property that has potential, but requires some elbow grease for very little down.  Sometimes you can start with nothing down.

If you play your cards right, you can find a piece of land that’s right for you at the same cost of your old mortgage or monthly rent.  If you were spending $500 a month, work the deal to pay the owner $500 a month.  The downsides to this approach are that the owner will often use a higher interest rate than normal and if you default on the payments, you lose it all.  So make sure you have money saved for a rainy day.

Get A Land Loan

Land loans are harder to come by these days, but there are a few credit unions and smaller banks that will still do them.  You’re typically looking at about 2% more interest than going mortgage rates.  This was an option I explored and was able to find financing options through the Farmers Credit Union which had USDA backing.

I don’t typically advocate taking on debt, but there are sometimes that it is the only realistic option.  Houses, land and for some cars are the only way they could achieve this.  If you go this route, make sure you have a good handle on your finances, you’ve paid down all your debt and you have 3-6 months of expenses saved in case of job loss.  This isn’t something you want to mess around with.

Stretch The Money You Do Have

One thing to consider is that land is often expensive, but if we are willing to make a move we can consider areas that land is cheaper.  If you have $15,000 in California, you’re not going to find any options, but if you were open to Montana, you might find some really good deals.  Combined this with a rent to own arrangement and you can get some really nice land for what you have on hand.

The two caveats with this is to make sure that you can still find employment in those areas, if you can remote work you can be pulling in big city pay checks while having small town bills.  The other thing is to try it before you buy it, just because it’s the right price may not mean it’s a place you like to live.

So consider renting for a year and use the time to get to know the area, the people and the lifestyle.  You can use this time to get a lay of the land, understand where you might want to live better and build connections that could help you on your journey.

Rent Land

In more rural locations, especially those where farming is common, renting land by the year is very common.  Many people will use this as a way to expand their farm without buying expensive property.  In some places $50 per acre per year is quite common, you just need to make sure that you are able to move everything if the situation changes.

So those are some of the options you can consider when trying to find land.  It isn’t easy, but with some creativity, hard work and perseverance you can make owning land a reality.

Your Turn!

  • How have you figured out a way to find your own land?
  • Where are you at with your journey?

Changing The Goal

Many people know about the video The Story Of Stuff, since its release it has been very popular.  Recently the same folks release a new video called The Story Of Solutions.  The video talks about how for a long time the name of the game in our economy has been growing the GDP, having more, buy buy buy.  I am preaching to the choir, but we all know while there are things we need, consumerism in America has become a little crazy.

So this video makes the assertion that that we shouldn’t focus on more, but instead better.  I think the one point they should have made stronger in the video is that in some cases more=better, but it often has a different twist to it.  In some cases more won’t be better and for an economy that is on a finite planet we need to grapple with that.

While the solutions they presented in the film are good ones, we also know we have a long fight ahead of us against those who have a financial stake in keeping the status quo.  It made me think of the project Christopher Carson (of Tiny House The Movie) was part of, a local campaign to fight Xcel Energies deep pockets campaign to prevent municipal sustainable energy program.


Asheville Tiny House

A few years ago I met Rhodes Waite when we attended a tiny house group talk hosted at a Permaculture gathering. She was in the beginning stages of designing her own tiny house. We fell out of touch but just recently ran in to each other at Yestermorrow Design and Build School in Vermont. She happened to be at the school for a week-long tiny house design workshop and I was there on a work-study for Permaculture design! It was great to catch up and hear about what she was learning in the class and see her completed tiny house. Below are pictures of her home in Asheville, North Carolina and her thoughts on tiny living and the workshop she took at Yestermorrow.


How do you power your tiny house?

 It is wired just like a “normal” house, 12/20 wiring and a small breaker box.  I have a female recessed outlet in the exterior wall that an extension cord plugs right into.  So I run it to the house who’s yard I’m in.  I set it up so that an inverter and solar panel could be added in the future, but for now it’s on the grid, so to speak. Electric bill runs $5-$10 a month.

What is the biggest challenge for you living in a tiny house?


This is probably the hardest question you asked, as nothing comes to mind right away. Hmmm…it’s probably that I haven’t been settled in one location long enough to really feel stable as I’d like to. That’s more of a life circumstance and choice thing than a tiny house thing, but ideally I’d like to live in a tiny house in one location (I’ve moved it twice in 6 months). Other than that there aren’t really any challenges. I find myself wanting more space sometimes just to be able to stack a few boxes or get into projects, but it’s not a big deal.

What are some of the advantages?

 I love it, I love it, I love it!!!!  I have no mortgage or rent (just a tiny tiny house payment), and I own my house! Wherever I go my space stays the same, and it’s an amazing space.  It feels so good to live so small, because it doesn’t feel small at all.  The title of the class I just took at Yestermorrow sums it up well…”Less is More”!  There’s really not a way to describe the feeling of lightness and freedom that comes with simplifying one’s life. I love knowing where everything is all the time. I love being able to clean my


entire house in 5 minutes. I love feeling so connected to the resources I use and don’t use to live my life and power my house.  I love the simplicity of where my “wastes” go…to the backyard. I love the life and character my home holds, it feels great.  I love everything being within arms reach.I love the coziness. I love loving where I live.

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