garden clipboard and veggies

I hope you have been making notes from your garden and your kitchen about what you have been growing and eating this summer. Being able to eat as much of a meal as you can from what you have produced is a feeling of accomplishment. Even if you don’t grow everything you eat, supplementing your meals with items from local growers can give you the same good feeling. It is very satisfying to sit down to a meal and know where everything came from and how it was grown.

If you are striving to produce meals with only (or mostly) homegrown ingredients, what would you have to provide, in addition to what you already grow, to make that happen? For example, you could make sure the ingredients for salsa or spaghetti sauce are in your garden plan. In my Homegrown Friday posts you can read how I only consumed what I’d grown for the Fridays in Lent. If you run out of ingredients in your favorite dishes long before next year’s crop comes in, plan now to plant more if space allows.

I know that garden space is at a premium for many and that careful choices need to be made. In that case, think of local growers as an extension of your garden. Whatever they can supply in abundance is something you can take off the list for your garden if you have limited room. You could devote your garden space to the things you love that there is never enough of at the local markets, whether it is sugar snap peas, potatoes, or a special winter squash. Maybe you want to eat from your garden all winter. Those crops need to be planned for, since they will be planted while the traditional summer crops are still in the ground. You will find a three-bed plan for winter eating in my post Winter Food Crop Rotation.

cover crops in late winter

Cover crops in late winter.

Now is the time to be planning for next year because as the summer crops fade away and space opens up, cover crops need to be planted. Which cover crop to plant in each bed is determined by what crop will follow next year. If you are managing cover crops with hand tools, as I advocate, the cover crops have to be finished before the next crop goes in. By finished I mean winterkilled, cut at the proper time to lie down as mulch or compost material, or harvested at the end of its life cycle. A handout that will help you with cover crop decisions is available as a free download on the resource page on my website. In Grow a Sustainable Diet there are sample garden maps showing how to include cover crops in your rotations, the reasoning behind the cover crop choices, and thoughts on what other choices could be made. Getting cover crops planted this fall is your first step to having a great garden in 2016, as long as they are planned with the next crop in mind.

Mississippi Silver cowpeas ready to harvest for dry beans.

Mississippi Silver cowpeas ready to harvest for dry beans.

Just so you know, the perfect garden plan doesn’t exist. You will always be changing it as new ideas come your way. Also, the weather has a way of encouraging gardeners like us to look at new varieties and new crops to add to our plans. Cowpeas came to be part of my garden after a couple years of serious drought. I put my mind to what grows well in dry times here in the mid-Atlantic region and came up with cowpeas, sometimes known as Southern peas. That first year with the cowpeas was another dry one and they did great. Don’t you know, the following year was the wettest year I have ever experienced. The cowpeas did great then, also, and have been part of my garden ever since. I save seed each year, ensuring I will have adequate seed for next year that is already acclimated to my garden, no matter what the weather brings.

If eating a substantial part of your diet from your garden and local sources is a goal for you, participating in the 10-Day Local Food Challenge can be a gauge to measure how far you have come. The formal challenge is taking place October 1-10, but you could determine any days to be your challenge. The formal challenge suggests you eat food grown within 100 miles for 10 days. Acknowledging that humans have been trading for eons, 10 exotics are allowed to augment your local/homegrown diet. The exotics are things not grown within the 100 mile limit. So, if you really can’t exist without coffee and chocolate you can include them in your exotics while you think about weaning yourself off of them a bit. Maybe you could experiment with herb teas from your garden rather than having another cup of coffee. I don’t have any suggestions for the chocolate other than to experience all the flavors you can from your garden, which will fill your belly and your soul, lessening the need for something like chocolate.homeplace earth

salsa ingredients for one batchWhen I was first learning to can back in the 1970’s salsa was not on my radar at all. That might be because the canning books I followed didn’t have any recipes for it. Fast forward to the 21st century and there are lots of salsa recipes in the canning books. Salsa is a form of relish and is as easy to make as pickles. It does require some chopping, which I do with a knife; although some people prefer to use a food processor. I can salsa for use later and include vinegar, as you would for other relishes. Recipes for salsa to consume fresh might not include vinegar.

salsa ingredients-choppedThe recipe I use is for Zesty Salsa that I found in the Ball Blue Book from 1998. You can find the same recipe here. The main ingredients are tomatoes, peppers, and onions which I have in my garden. The vegetables you see in the first photo are the ones shown chopped in the second photo—all of which made the 6 pints of salsa in the last photo. Besides tomatoes, peppers, and onions, the recipe calls for cider vinegar, garlic, cilantro, salt, and hot pepper sauce (optional). I always have garlic available from my garden. Instead of cilantro, which I don’t grow, I used celery leaves and parsley from my garden. One of the reasons I like making salsa is that it is so colorful when you have everything chopped up together.

Although the recipe includes both green sweet peppers and hot peppers, I am not into hot so I used sweet peppers only and no hot sauce, although I have added some mildly hot peppers in the past. You have to be careful with canning recipes. You can sometimes make substitutions, but you need to do them wisely. The salsa was canned in a hot water bath which is used for high acid foods, so care must be taken to maintain the acidity. Tomatoes are high acid foods, but onions and peppers are not. Vinegar in the recipe contributes to the acidity. You can substitute different kinds of peppers, such as sweet for hot, but be careful to not have more than the total amount of peppers called for in the recipe. The same goes for onions. They could be any combination of red, yellow, or white, but the total should not exceed the amount in the recipe. The Complete Guide to Home Canning has great information about this and other substitutions. You can find it online at the National Center for Home Food Preservation website as a free download or order your own hardcopy at Purdue Extension’s Education Store.

jars of salsaBesides tacos, salsa can be used as an addition to many foods, including potatoes and eggs. Of course, it can be eaten as a dip just as it is. I grow cowpeas out to dried beans, store them in jars in the pantry, then cook them as needed. We have found that salsa goes great with those cooked cowpeas. If you are growing your own staple crops, salsa and other relishes can add interest and taste to your meals. Last winter friends gave us two jars of relish. One was corn relish, but I don’t remember the name of the other. It was all delicious on cowpeas. If you are putting up pints for your table, make sure to can some half-pints (jelly jar size) to give as gifts. The time, energy, and produce that went into making the salsa now will be appreciated by the recipients when gift-giving time rolls around. It will also make your life easier to have something on hand to share with your friends anytime the mood strikes. If you are wondering about those white lids on my canning jars—they are reusable lids. I like to use them on high acid foods and only on jars that I won’t be giving away. I’ll have to make another batch with regular lids for gift jars.

Salsa, canned in jars, is a convenience food for me. I have not tried fermenting it, but according to Sandor Katz in The Art of Fermentation, you could do that. Reduce or eliminate the vinegar and use plenty of salt. Tomatoes, peppers, onions, and garlic are available at the farmers markets now. If you haven’t grown your own, you could still do this. The 10 Day Local Food Challenge is coming up in October. If you plan on taking part, having a supply of salsa put up will enhance your meals. The 10 Day Local Food Challenge allows ten exotics in your diet, which are items not local. For me, that would be the salt and vinegar in the recipe. I haven’t made vinegar, but I suppose you could make your own from local apples. Then vinegar would be off the exotic list. Maybe you could find a vinegar maker and saltworks within your local food shed. It is something to think about.homeplace earth

Onion Harvest

Onions at harvest.

Onions at harvest.

Onions have been on my mind lately because I have been sorting my harvest. I make sure to harvest onions when their tops begin to fall over, but while the tops are still green. Each leaf is a covering over the onion, which protects it. When the tops dry, the outer covering can be removed to reveal a clean onion. Trim the roots and that is all there is to cleaning onions.

Before you can get to the cleaning part, you need to have a good way to dry the onions with their tops intact. If you do that, you can braid them. When you leave the onions in the garden for too long, the tops die and disappear. Not only do you not have the tops for braiding, but you may not even be able to find where the onions are.

A shady place is good to dry onions, and if you don’t have too many you could spread them out on your porch to dry. When I was growing a lot of onions to sell I would spread them out on the floor of our barn loft. In June and July it was available space, but in August I would be getting in hay for the cow that we had at the time, so I needed to sort and braid the onions in a timely manner.

Onions hung to dry after harvest.

Onions hung to dry after harvest.

Eventually I needed to come up with a better way. I decided to use some old welded wire fencing with 2”x 4” spaces. I made the fence into a circle and put it on two cement blocks for better air circulation. The onions are loaded onto the fencing with the bulbs in the middle of the circle and the tops on the outside. If the onions are too big to be put through the spaces from the outside, you need to reach the onion down to the inside and pull the top through to the outside. Keep that in mind if you are making such a circle. A good size is about 3’ high and 2’ wide.

Onions dried on this circle of fencing.

Onions dried on this circle of fencing.

Having this rest on the cement blocks works for good air circulation, but I’ve also hung it up by tying baling twine to two sides with loops to hang from nails in the rafters. This frees up floor space in addition to contributing to better air circulation. Once the tops are dry (it will take a few weeks) you can begin to sort. There is no hurry and you could leave them there for quite some time, but it is best to go through them to determine the ones that will keep the longest and the onions that need to be used soon.

I grow storage varieties because I want them to last as long as possible. Some of the sweeter varieties are not for storage and you will need to eat them or dry them soon. Even with the storage varieties, there are always some that need to be used before too long. I determine that by pressing with my thumb where the dry top comes out of the onion bulb. If there is no give, it is a keeper. If there is just a little give, those are the next best keepers. If I detect a softness there, I put those aside to use first.

I would use the onions that I knew were not long term keepers in cooking throughout the summer and in the spaghetti sauce I used to can. Now that I make spaghetti sauce from my solar dried tomatoes, I dry those “use first” onions in my solar food dryers for use later in the sauce. Preparation for that is easy—cut them up and put them on the trays. My solar dehydrators are outside, of course. If you are drying onions in an electric dryer be prepared for the aroma of onions. You might want to set the dehydrator out on your porch when you are doing onions.

red onion on string

String for braiding is attached.

I love braiding the onions that I will be keeping the longest. They will hang in the rafters of my garden shed until fall. Then I will hang the braids from the floor joists in the crawl space of our house, bringing one braid at a time to the kitchen. I usually put about 3 pounds of onions in each braid, although the string of red onions in the photo below only weights 1.25 pounds. To make a braid, I cut a string about 3’ in length, fold it in half to make a loop, and wrap it around one onion top near the bulb. Drawing the two ends of the string through the loop holds the string tight to the onion. The string is braided along with the onion top it is attached to. You need three onions to start the braid. To braid, keep putting one onion top to the middle working from one side, then the next. Add a new onion each time a dried top goes into the middle. The top for that onion will now be braided with the onion top it was paired with in the middle.

onion braid

Onion braid.

It is time to tie things off before you run out of string. There should be two string ends mixed in with your onion tops. I wrap them around the dried tops a couple times, knotting them in the front and the back. Tie the ends together, leaving a loop for hanging. Trim the tops to an attractive length. For a great looking onion braid, pull off the dry outer covering and trim the roots on the onions before braiding. Braids are great. Not only do they look good, but you can see all the onions at once, making it easy to choose what size you want. If one is not looking so good, you will know right away and can use that one before the others. If you are selling onions at a farmers market, the braids hanging from your canopy will attract attention and you can get a premium for them. You can even mix varieties, and if you look closely at the photo of the braid, you will notice a yellow onion in with the red.

If you have harvested onions this year and wondered just how to handle them, I hope this post has given you some good ideas. You might want to make some notes for next year’s harvest. In a previous post about onions I wrote of the health benefits of onions and gave some planting tips. They should be part of everyone’s diet and garden. If you did not grow any onions this year, buy them from local growers now and plan to make onions a part of your 2016 garden plan.Homeplace Earth

clothesline with clothes-BLOGWe don’t have an electric clothes dryer at our house. We used to have one, but took it out because we never used it. In its place there is room for crocks and for shelves full of jars of dried food. We hang our laundry to dry outside on the clothesline, which is actually a solar clothes dryer. When we moved here in 1984 I stretched three rows of clothesline from the garage to the pumphouse by putting large screw eyes in the eaves of both buildings. In case you are thinking that it must never rain here—it does, regularly. The total rainfall for our area is about 44” annually, more or less spread evenly throughout the year. In June we had 8” of rain, which is a pretty wet month. Nevertheless, we were still able to dry the clothes on the line. I watch the weather and do laundry on the dry days. So far in July we have had 2.2” of rain.

shirts hanging on shower rod-BLOGWe put shirts on hangers and hang them on the shower rod in the bathroom. Give them a good shake before hanging and you get out many of the wrinkles. Another trick to having less wrinkles is to not let the clothes sit in the washer too long after the cycle is finished. Once the shirts are dry they are hung back in the closets.

It is surprising how many good drying days on the clothesline we have in the winter. Sometimes the clothes are freeze-dried, but that’s okay, they still dry. In the winter we make good use of the large wooden drying rack we have. That rack is one of the best investments we made back in the early 1980s. Our previous house was small, making it pretty crowded if I set up the drying rack during the day; so if I was going to use it inside, I would wash clothes in the evening and leave the drying rack up all night in front of a heating vent that was in the wall in the dining room. I could hang a whole load of cloth diapers or other laundry on that rack in the evening and everything would be dry in the morning. You can even put it in a room without direct heat from a vent and the clothes will still dry. If the air in your house is too dry, your wet laundry can be a natural humidifier. This rack folds to 6″ wide and slides into a space beside the refrigerator in the kitchen between uses.

drying rack with herbs and seeds-BLOGIn the photo you can see that a drying rack is good for drying more than laundry. Here it is in use to dry herbs, beans, and roselle. The beans were harvested as dried beans, but I felt they needed a bit more drying before I packed them away. I usually dry the Red Thai Roselle calyxes in my solar dryer outside, but they dried well on these racks inside. There was no fire in the woodstove that day. That is a handy spot to put the rack year round. In the winter the heat from the woodstove speeds the drying. The drying screens are from my solar dryer that was not being used that day. It is nice that the dowels on the rack align so that the screens fit across them like that.

Basements are a good place to put up clotheslines since you don’t have to worry about the weather. If you feel you don’t have time for all this, let me tell you about the year I went back to school to finish college. My husband and I lived in Columbus, Ohio with our firstborn when I was finishing the requirements for my degree in Home Economics Education from Ohio State University. During the quarter I was doing student teaching I didn’t get to bed until at least midnight. If not then, it was 2am—then up at 6am to do it all again. We used cloth diapers on our toddler. In the evening I would put laundry through the washer and we would hang it to dry, including the diapers, on lines in the basement. The laundry we hung the previous evening would be dry. I realize that was 40 years ago, but it would work the same today.

A couple years later we moved to Richmond, Virginia. There are not so many basements in the houses here. The frost line is not so deep, so the building foundations don’t have to be as deep. The house we bought was usual for the area—a small cape cod style house with no basement. In these houses, what would be the attic was usually finished into two bedrooms. We used one of the two upstairs rooms as a catchall room and put clotheslines there. You don’t need a woodstove to dry clothes inside.

My husband and I are pleased to not have to depend on electricity and fossil fuel to dry our laundry. If you are looking for a way to lessen your dependence on such things, seriously consider hanging your clothes to dry. If you look around your house and property you will certainly find a place suitable to dry your laundry. With just a little adjustment in your schedule, I’m sure you can also find a way to ditch your dryer.Homeplace Earth

Garden Paths June 2015--BLOGEverything is growing like crazy at my place, including weeds in my garden paths. Unfortunately, I don’t have white clover growing there like I usually do. Dutch white clover is a short-lived perennial that, in my opinion, is great to have growing in your garden paths. Without white clover, I mulch my paths with leaves or grass clippings, with or without newspapers or cardboard underneath the mulch.

Although I have access to leaves and grass clippings from our own property, sometimes they are used to mulch the crops in the garden beds or other areas in our landscape, leaving little for the paths. I used to have access to as many leaves as I could want that came from other places and I used them liberally in my paths and on my beds. Now, however, there is a danger of herbicides being used that persist in the environment for a long time after they are used and could be in materials I would acquire. I wrote about that in my post on Killer Compost. When I decided to limit outside inputs to my garden, including those leaves that were hauled in from elsewhere, I had to rethink what I would do with the paths. I turned to Dutch white clover and have been pleased with it. I am thinking even more fondly of it now that it is not here.

Winter Squash provides mulch for this path.

Winter squash provides mulch for this path.

So, why is white clover not in my paths this year? Last fall my attention was called to too many things besides the garden. I was happy I was able to get the cover crops planted in a timely manner, but I never tended to the paths. I told myself I would do that early in the spring. Unfortunately, spring proved to be busy, also, and the clover never got planted. Well, I’m paying the price for that now. I have been weeding all my paths and mulching with grass clippings from our lawn. I’m also taking advantage of things like letting the winter squash wander into the path, naturally providing mulch, as it is doing in this photo beside this cowpea bed. The cowpeas will need little tending until they are harvested for dried beans.

Ordinarily, in the fall when I plant cover crops I reshape my beds if needed, scraping any loose soil from the paths back into the beds, and sow white clover in the paths—raking it in with my cultivator. It gets off to a good start in the fall and keeps a green cover on the paths through the winter. In the spring it is growing nicely and keeping the weeds away, allowing me to concentrate on what to do with the garden beds, with little maintenance needed for the paths. Dutch white clover is the lowest growing clover, so that is the variety you want. You can see my garden with clover paths in my DVD Cover Crops and Compost Crops IN Your Garden.

The clover will flower here in June. Too often I wait until it is in full flower to cut it, which is probably why it sometimes dies out in mid-summer and needs to be planted again in the fall. That’s okay. It had done its job for the year. If I trimmed it sooner, it would probably last longer, just as it keeps growing in your yard when you mow it. I only cut it a couple times during the summer with my sickle—the same one I use to cut my grains. Those of you who are into noisy machines might use a string trimmer to keep the clover trimmed. Sometimes the clover creeps up into the edges of the beds, but I don’t find that to be a problem. The clover keeps weeds from the bed edges and can be easily pulled out when I weed the beds if it starts to creep in too far. In that case I harvest it for compost material.

Some paths did get attention in the spring and they have cardboard or brown paper bags as mulch, sometimes under grass clippings and sometimes alone. The organic grain I buy to grind as feed for my chickens comes in the brown bags. I don’t have many chickens, so not so many bags, but I save them up for this job. I don’t go looking for cardboard for the paths, but sometimes boxes find their way to my house and have no other use. I have not made a study of whether cardboard is safe to use in your garden these days, but I don’t use it often—only when the boxes start to accumulate and I need to cover garden paths. Remember, most years I have white clover growing there, so don’t need the mulch. We get the newspaper daily and usually recycle it, but when I need to keep the weeds under control, such as now, I use it (newsprint only, not the glossy sections) in the paths. Since newspapers tend to blow around, I cover them with grass clippings.

Rye straw from the mulch in the bed on the left of the corn and grass clippings in the path on the right.

Rye straw from the mulch in the bed on the left of the corn and grass clippings in the path on the right.

I grow grains in my garden and if I didn’t use the straw for the carbon addition to my compost, it would be available to use as mulch. In some of my beds rye is grown to be cut early and kept on the bed as mulch for the next crop. Allowing some of that rye straw to spill into the paths takes care of some of them. In this photo you can see the rye straw from the bed covering the path on one side of the corn bed and grass clippings mulching the path to the right of the corn.

My paths are now all weeded and mostly mulched (more grass clippings coming with the next mowing), so they should be good for the summer. I have to admit, they started to get away from me there. I always like to have everything under control by July 4th. If your garden is getting the better of you right now, don’t beat yourself up. Harvest the weeds to feed to your compost pile and be happy for the great compost they will make for your garden for next year. Then, make a plan so you will be more in control in the future. You can bet that I’ll be planting Dutch white clover in the paths this fall, making my work easier in 2016.Homeplace Earth

betsy and luke onion harvest - BLOGSummer is upon us and it is relatively quiet at my house. It wasn’t always that way. My husband and I raised four children–the oldest was thirteen when the youngest was born. Summers meant lots of activity and a full table for lunch every day. I was the stay-at-home parent and had no desire to haul the kids around to keep them entertained. We had plenty to do at home.

I wanted my children to be productive members of our family and, from a young age, gave them opportunities to do that. They were responsible for keeping their rooms clean, picking up after themselves, bringing firewood up to the house in the winter as needed, and doing things when asked, such as setting the table or folding clothes while they watched TV. Those are the things I can think of off the top of my head (the youngest is 28 and the oldest is 41, so it’s been awhile). I’m sure they could add to the list. Actually, setting the table was usually the job for the youngest. When we moved to this house in 1984 I put the dinner dishes on a shelf in a low cupboard so that our daughter, age 2, could reach them and set the table by herself. I believe they were all grown before I got around to moving the dishes to an upper cabinet.

Summertime, however, was different. There was garden work to do, and plenty of it. I told them they had to give me an hour of their time each weekday—even the little ones. The first week after school was out (they went to the school that sent a yellow bus around every day), I let them sleep in and decide when they would put in their hour. Since the work was usually in the garden it didn’t take them the whole week to decide it was better to get up early and put in their hour before it got too hot. I remember someone telling me they were happy their children were on the swim team because it got them out of bed every morning to be at practice by 9. When a public pool was built nearby, we joined and our children went there, but not because of swim team. They all learned how to swim and, to this day, prefer rivers to pools anyway.

travis betsy and luke painting the fence - BLOGI would choose age-appropriate jobs for each of them. They would weed, mulch, and pick. They learned entomology when we identified insects in the garden, deciding if they were good or bad ones. In order to keep the Mexican bean beetles and Colorado potato beetles in check, I would pay them a penny for each beetle they picked off the beans or potatoes and a nickel for each egg cluster they smashed. Let me tell you, a child who struggles with math in the classroom has no problem adding numbers in his head to tell you how much he is owed under these circumstances. Sometimes their job was to paint the fence.

We were all in the garden at the same time, and it took some managing on my part to keep everyone at their job—happily (which was a requirement). By the time their hour was up, they had thought of enough things to do to keep themselves occupied for the rest of the day. Legos were a part of their lives, especially on hot afternoons, but they were also free to make things, spend time in our small woods, play with neighborhood friends, and when they got old enough, ride their bikes to Ashland—about 3½ miles away. Of course, those were the days before video games. The TV was turned on for shows like Reading Rainbow, Secret City (an art show), and sometimes they watched a cooking show.

travis and betsy juicing tomatoes -BLOGOn the days there were things to can, especially snap beans and tomatoes, they were expected to help with that. Sometimes it was in addition to the garden work, and sometimes it was instead of. We would all sit around the table and talk while we worked. I remember having a young one in the high chair with his/her own knife and cutting board. The work got done and it never required anyone ever getting any stitches. By the time the second oldest learned to read I would choose books from the library that the two oldest could read and let them take turns reading a chapter at a time while the rest of us worked on the beans. It gave the reader a break from the beans, honed his reading skills, and kept everyone quiet and interested. It was a pleasant time. With the tomatoes, they washed, quartered (more knife work) and sometimes worked the Victorio strainer.

One of the best things that came out of summers at home with the kids was the Summer Lunch Café and it wasn’t a work requirement. When he was about eleven, our oldest came up with the idea to make lunch, with the help of his brother, age seven. They had decided to play “restaurant” and, on their own, found all the choices in the kitchen for lunch and made a menu, which, among other things, included all the condiments in the fridge. When their restaurant opened, they seated me and their little sister and took our order. I don’t remember what we had that day—it could have been peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. What I do remember is that it was a nice break from me making lunch and we all had a good time.

The children continued to play restaurant whenever the spirit moved them during the summer, with the next in line moving up to either helper or manager as the older ones got “real” jobs elsewhere. By the time Betsy (third child and only girl) was in charge, with her younger brother as helper, the oldest (Jarod) had his own lawn business and would occasionally be home for lunch when he was working in the area. Betsy was the one who named it the Summer Lunch Café and would put a tip jar out if Jarod was there. Often he would ask her in the morning if the Summer Lunch Café was going to be open that day and was happy to enjoy what he had started so long ago.

Although it was often through garden work that my children contributed to the household each day, I would sometimes give them the choice of housework. They could choose to dust and sweep the living room or clean the bathroom instead of putting in their time in the garden that day. Cooking could be an option for your kids to contribute to the household. My kids came up with the Summer Lunch Café on their own and enjoyed watching the cooking show on PBS (I don’t remember which one). With the proliferation of cooking shows on TV, sometimes involving children, your children may be inspired to make dinner on a regular basis, or at least help, as their contribution to your household. Just like with me in the garden with all the kids at once, it would take some guidance and management on your part, but the skills they come away with will be with them forever.

When I started selling produce in 1992 I hired whoever was a young teen at the time to be my paid helper on market days. There was still the “one hour for the family at no pay” requirement on the other days. If you ask my grown children today, they will probably tell you that they had more chores than their friends did at the time, but they have no regrets. When they were old enough to get a “real” job they already knew how to follow directions and to keep at a job until it was done. I received good feedback from their bosses, who said that wasn’t always the case with young employees.

To describe those summers when our children were growing up as busy would be an understatement, and I wouldn’t trade them for the world. I know times have changed and there are many distractions in this digital age, but I hope you take the time to arrange regular occasions to have your children do meaningful work alongside you this summer. You will get to know each other in a way you couldn’t otherwise.Homeplace Earth

Cindy in her homegrown, handspun cotton vest.

Cindy in her homegrown, handspun cotton vest.

My new vest is finished! In the photo I am wearing my new homegrown, handspun, handwoven, naturally-colored cotton vest. It has been a long time in coming. Growing the cotton and sewing the vest are skills and knowledge I already had. The spinning and weaving were things I needed to learn.

Homegrown cotton and takli spindle.

Homegrown cotton and takli spindle.

In February 2013 I wrote of my cotton spinning journey in my blog post Grow and Spin Cotton. I’ll repeat the photo here of my Nankeen Brown cotton, Erlene’s Green cotton, and takli spindle. All the fiber for the vest was spun on that spindle. Since cotton has such a short fiber length, it is helpful to use a support spindle, which is what a takli is. A small bowl supports the bottom of the spindle while it spins. Once the cotton was spun into singles I plied two singles into 2-ply yarn, which is what I used to weave with. The plying was done on a drop spindle that I made from a dowel and a small wooden wheel.

Small table loom with fabric for homegrown, handspun cotton vest.

Small table loom with fabric for homegrown, handspun cotton vest.

Joining Clothos Handspinners has been an important part of this fiber adventure. I learn so much from attending the meetings and interacting with the members. Every two years the group holds a swap meet which is an opportunity for members to sell extra equipment, fiber, and books and for others (like me) to acquire it. Some of that trading also goes on informally at the regular meetings. The swap meet was where I bought my loom. Then I had to learn to use it. This vest has not been an easy project. The loom is 12” wide, but my resulting fabric was only 9½” wide. I made a pattern from the quilted vest I wear, and from that, designed a pattern that used 9½” wide fabric. Since 9½” is not wide enough for a full front or back panel, there are side panels that make up the difference.

Erlene's green and Nankeen brown cotton spun and woven.

Erlene’s green and Nankeen brown cotton spun and woven.

I used brown for the warp and green for the weft. As you can see, the weft is dominant in the weaving. I grew both colors in the garden and, although they were a good distance apart, there was some crossing. I didn’t notice green in with the brown, but there would be some brown in with the green. Maybe brown is the dominant color when it comes to genetics. When I was spinning I didn’t separate the off-color fibers, so there was some brown spun with the green, just as it was harvested. The fiber from the green cotton plants also had bits of white. It made for a pleasant variation in color in the finished fabric. Although I did do some carding, mostly I spun the fiber right off the seed.

As noted in my 2013 blog post, my 2012 yield (fiber only, no seeds) was .75 lb (green) to 1 lb. (brown) fiber per 100 sq. ft. The weight of my vest is 11.5 oz. (.72 lb.) including lining and buttons. Frequently people assume I would have had to grow cotton on a larger scale to produce an item of clothing, but this can be done in a garden. I used cotton osnaburg fabric for the lining—a piece I had left from a previous project. Osnaburg has an earthy appearance and seemed right for the vest. Besides, I already had it.

Button made from a shell on the homegrown, handspun cotton vest.

Button made from a shell on the homegrown, handspun cotton vest.

Although I usually don’t button my vests closed, I wanted to have buttons and I wanted them to be special. My first thought was to make wooden buttons, but then I remembered the jar of shells our children picked up at the beach many years ago. I used small vice grips to nip the edges of a shell off—going round and round until it was the size I wanted for a button. Then I drilled two ⅟₁₆” holes in each button. I didn’t want to put buttonholes in my new fabric so I made loops by braiding my brown cotton yarn to close the vest, if I should want to. This was my first time making buttons from shells and I am pleased with the results. In the photo you can see a bit of the osnaburg lining.

Now that I know how to spin and weave, the possibilities for unique yarns and fabrics are endless. I will be learning about natural dyes and eventually learn to spin wool and to use a wheel. When I was at the Mother Earth News Fair in Asheville, NC in April I bought a book charka from Eileen Hallman at New World Textiles, but I haven’t used it yet so as not to distract me from finishing the vest. Once I learn how to use it, the charka will speed up my cotton spinning. For this vest I wanted to use the least technology that I could, not only because it was the least expensive way to go (which was a consideration), but because I wanted to relate to how people down through the ages worked with fiber to clothe themselves. I’m sure in some places people still depend on these methods and, you can be sure, I kept them in my heart while I worked.

When I first grew cotton I had no idea what to do with it and put it away in a box for at least ten years. It has taken some effort to learn to spin and to get to the point of making a vest with my homegrown cotton. I might have finished the vest earlier if I wasn’t sidetracked writing two books during that time. You might not be into growing and spinning your own cotton, but there is probably some other adventure that has been rolling around in your head for awhile—maybe even ten years or more. I want to encourage you to go for it. If I can learn to do this, you can learn new tricks, too.

I’ll be wearing my new vest at upcoming events this year, which are listed here. First up is the Slow Living Summit in Brattleboro, Vermont on June 3-5. See you there!


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