Audrey Lewis

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since Jan 01, 2019
Audrey likes ...
kids forest garden food preservation
Transitioning from a suburban, office job lifestyle to a more self-reliant, nature-based lifestyle.
Lexington, KY
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Recent posts by Audrey Lewis

I don’t know if anyone wants an update on this project, but I know that sometimes I enjoy seeing updates on old threads.

I toiled over plans for my orchard, tried to internalize everyone’s advice here, and wrung my hands all last year until finally a couple huge loads of woodchips showed up on my property last fall. I had left my name with some local tree services, and that first load set the plans in motion!

With additional loads of woodchips, I ended up creating four rows, each about 8-12 inches deep, 8 feet wide, and 160 feet long. That was almost entirely done by hand! With wheelbarrows! Even if all the plants die, I got some much needed exercise.

So far I have planted about 20 fruit trees, a bunch of shrubs, and a bunch of berry bushes. I’ve sprinkled in some comfrey, goumi bushes, false indigo, mushrooms, daffodils, and chives. My list of plants that I still need to fill in the remaining gaps and understory is long.

With a late frost, deer/animal pressure, and some neglect in the watering department, I expected a lot more of the plants to die, but surprisingly almost everything that experienced damage bounced back. Overall, the growth has far outpaced the setbacks, sometimes shockingly so.

The great thing about getting a project started is that the momentum builds and soon concrete, pressing action items replace the neurotic wheels spinning in your head. I initially had struggled with choosing between a linear, orderly layout and a more meandering, wild layout. I ended up with the lines, which works well now since we have to mow between rows. The lines also help me remember where everything is located. However, 10 or 20 years from now when the trees are mature, some have become more dominant, and some have died away, I think I will let the meandering paths develop and let the lines erode away. Everything happens in slow motion, which is good, because I’m busy.

Over the summer I grew winter squash and melons on the woodchips between trees. I now have enough butternut squash, Seminole pumpkins, and candy roaster squash to fill a house, so that was fun.

I spent a long time stuck in an office job, miserable, reading posts on this site about other people’s projects. Starting my own project seemed unattainable for all the normal reasons: job, money, kids, time, location, etc. I’m still not living my dream life, but with compromises I feel satisfied in knowing that I am moving forward rather than staying stagnant and frustrated.

I found a new full-time teaching job with horrible pay, but I have health insurance, enough money to pay the bills, and a much more flexible schedule. The whole process of starting this orchard was and still is daunting. I need to figure out how to prune my trees, trellis some of my berries, make and spray compost tea, propagate some plants, and the list goes on. Whenever I get too overwhelmed I just remember that it doesn’t have to be perfect and I am making progress.

This website has been very helpful in giving me ideas and shaping the way I approach the development of my orchard. While everything I read about still seems like a swirling vortex of disconnected information in my mind, with applied hands-on practice the dots are starting to connect. I appreciate all the input I received last year.
2 weeks ago
Hi Eric. I don't have suggestions for other materials. I just wanted to say that if you do decide to go the cinder block route, you could always just own it and paint them crazy colors. If you have kids, let them paint designs all over them. Then it's an "art project" rather than a cheap way to make a raised bed.
Hi Davis. The market garden hand tool I've seen that works well for planting into cover crop residue does not exactly match the specifications you described. However you may find it to be worth checking out. It's called the Zilli jab seeder, and I found it on the Earth Tools website when I was researching crimper rollers just last night. You plant seeds one at a time by jabbing the ground, and it automatically reloads the next seed. It has a quart size hopper. That may be a little more labor intensive than what you're looking for.
1 year ago
I've had good luck soaking the cucumbers in ice water for several hours prior to pickling. For some reason they seem to absorb the water and firm up. Also make sure to cut a sliver off the blossom end so that it has no remnants of the blossom, which has enzymes that make pickles soft.
1 year ago
Hi Beau. You mentioned dye for textiles, but I've also heard of people using black walnut hulls as a natural hair dye. If you stuck it in fancy packaging with some directions there might be a market for it among people who are into natural beauty products.
1 year ago
Hi Ben. I used to work with a Chinese man who told me all the time that I needed to be eating bitter melon. He was so convinced that I needed bitter melon that he shared some of his seeds with me. He had been saving them for years in his backyard garden and claimed that his variety was much better than the ones you find in the grocery store. I grew them and, just like you, found them to be repulsive. I knew they were going to be bitter, but nothing quite prepares you for bitterness like that. I asked him how he prepares them, and he told me that he scoops out the seeds and core then slices them very thin. Then he sprinkles salt on them and lets them soak in water for 10-15 minutes. Supposedly soaking removes some of the bitterness. After that he adds them to pork stir fry where they are cooked at a very high heat for a short time.

I went home and tried preparing the bitter melon just as he said, and they were more palatable, although still very bitter. Unexpectedly I found that I came to enjoy them in my stir fry and almost craved having that small pop of bitter in there. Supposedly bitter melon is great for diabetes. I do have some blood sugar issues, so maybe he was onto something. I'm glad you reminded me about bitter melon. I need to go ask him for more seeds and actually save some this time.

I now work at a different job with a different Chinese man. We were talking about gardening a while back and I asked him if he was familiar with bitter melon. He said, "Oh yeah, you eat that in pork stir fry." So perhaps try it that way!
1 year ago
I have a theoretical question about a garden location for you guys!

I was just given a large amount of spoiled, unsprayed hay. I plan to lay it on the ground very thick, dig some holes in it, throw some soil/amendments in the holes, and plant my sprawling vines like squash and pumpkin in it. It’s a small, half-hearted, temporary garden. If it flops that’s fine. I just don’t have anywhere else to plant sprawling vines, so I’ll take my chances.

I have two choices of location for this single-summer garden. I have a flat field where half is covered in grass that is regularly mowed like a lawn, and half is a meadow covered in grass, oats, peas, clovers, wildflowers, and who knows what else.

Here’s my question: Do you think the squash and pumpkins have a better chance of surviving bugs and deer if the garden is exposed out on the mowed lawn, or hidden in the meadow?
Peter, "The Hand Sculpted House" lit a fire in me too. That is one of my favorite books, along with "One Straw Revolution."

To answer your question, having a college degree lets you work for other people. It buys you stability. If you did not have a clear passion (natural building, homesteading), then I would say it might be a good path for you. I've worked with many directionless people who were perfectly happy to come sit in their office all day and go home to watch TV while raking in that steady paycheck. It strikes me as odd, but it works for them.

You, on the other hand, have a fire burning in you to learn natural building and start a homestead. I can tell you from experience that if you run away from that passion and follow a more traditional path (college, salary job working for somebody else), that passion will continue to gnaw away at you until you finally cave in and do something about it. Either that, or it will slowly die, which is even worse.

But your question is about practicality, balancing what you're interested in with the very real need to earn money. By the way, that's wonderful that you have no debt and are good at living frugally. You're already doing great.

If you are interested in any state or federal government jobs, then I think the BA may be worthwhile. Unlike private companies, where you can weasel your way into a high ranking position based on (gasp) your knowledge and skills, of which it sounds like you have plenty, government jobs are highly prescriptive in their requirements and do not make exceptions. Most require a college degree. They will also determine your pay based on your years of experience calculated, once again, following a strict formula. My experience working in state government years ago was generally positive. It's very stable and predictable, you get decent benefits, and you're (in theory) serving the greater good. You could get a fun job in an environmental or fish & wildlife department. It would likely have to be full-time. On the downside, the inefficiency and apathy in government can drive you nuts.

If you're not considering a government job, then I don't think the college degree is worth it unless you're confident it will lead to a lucrative, well-paying job. No doubt, if you pursued a BA you would learn new things and gain some skills - a college degree is not as worthless as people make it out to be. However, a college degree is often not worth the investment of time and money as a learning experience. A college degree can be worth the time and money as a hoop to jump through if it lands you in a career you want (not likely based on your interests) or a high-paying job. With a high-paying job, if you continued to live frugally, you could potentially build your homestead up slowly over time, tinker with natural building on the weekends, then retire early and live your dream life (still frugally) maybe starting in your 40's. Delayed gratification sucks, but with that plan you're getting the best of both worlds, especially if you get your food-producing plants in the ground early and have years for them mature while you're still slaving away for a paycheck.

You may want to do some math. Suppose you can find a job now or cobble together enough side gigs that you earn $30,000 a year. Could you live on $20,000 and stash away $10,000 each year? Awesome. Over the next 15 years you will save $150,000 plus interest. Suppose you go to college for 3 years and net $0 during that time - no debt and no savings. Then you get a job that pays $50,000. For the next 12 years you live on $20,000 and save $30,000 each year. In the end you have saved $360,000 by the same age living at the same level of spending. Just crunching the numbers for this entirely hypothetical scenario, going to college makes more sense. You may want to do some research and look at various realistic scenarios in the same way so that you can weigh the cold, hard numbers against the enjoyment and satisfaction you would experience in each scenario.

I wish I had a clear answer for you, but what I can do is tell you about my own personal experiences having college degrees. Maybe seeing how it played out in real life for someone else could offer you some insight to help you make up your mind. Since the day I graduated, I've worked full-time in jobs that required at least a bachelors: four years in state government, seven years teaching at a public university, and now one year at a private organization. In general, my jobs have been pretty cushy and low stress. I've always had enough money, usually more than I need. I've gotten to interact with tons of wonderful, intelligent coworkers from all different backgrounds. I've learned a wide variety of skills, many of which I never would have learned if I were just doing my own thing and not being forced outside my comfort zone. I've gotten to travel for business trips. In fact, I just returned from Toronto last night, where I stayed in a fancy hotel and went out for drinks every night with very smart, kind people from all over the world, all on the company's dime. There are perks to working at a professional job that requires a college degree beyond just a better salary. Most importantly, though, I've gained an understanding of what makes the world run - board meetings, policy development, office politics, committees, memos, organizational hierarchy charts - mind numbing things that make you want to bang your head against the wall. However, understanding how the business/government world works puts you in a much better position to create change in the world if there's something you're passionate about.

The downside of these jobs is that they were not completely fulfilling. Even worse, I feel like a slave working 8 to 5 every weekday all year long with only two or three weeks of vacation time that gets eaten up by sick kids or dentist appointments. I, personally, have not had much success finding part-time jobs or jobs with flexible schedules that pay well and are intended for people with college degrees, but that could just be me. So I am trapped in the rat race of working a rigid full-time schedule and never having a chance to pause and reflect on the what the heck I'm doing. I look back at the last 12 years and feel like I mostly wasted my talents and extinguished my inner creativity. As long as I've been working, I've felt restless and daydreamed about running my own small farm, which was my dream long before I ever went to college. Yes, having a comfortable lifestyle has been nice, but in my opinion it has not been worth selling my soul.

Soon I will jump ship and start building the life I want, which is made much easier because of my college degrees. The reason is that I will be teaching online (about 10-15 hours a week) to make just enough money to cover the bills. That affords me the opportunity to make a lot of mistakes while I learn how to eke out a living doing the things I actually love. Without my college degrees, I would not have the luxury of being able to make a smoother transition from working for the man to working for me. Having a steady paycheck, even a small one, brings me peace of mind, which is important to me since I have children and a family to think about. It sounds like you may not be as tied to stability and predictability as I am, given your description of your years sailing, rock climbing, backpacking, etc., which is why I lean a little more toward not going back to college in your case. The only exception is - you mentioned looking at Sterling College. If you could get into the next round of the Wendell Berry Farming Program, it looks pretty amazing. I'm sure it's competitive.

Best of luck to you! When trying to make a difficult decision, I have two pieces of advice. First is to remember that no matter which path you take, you can always change your course, and you will always learn something. The second is to flip a coin and say "heads" means you go back to college. If it lands on heads and you feel disappointed, then maybe that's not what you really want to do. If it lands on heads and you feel relieved, then maybe that is what you want to do. I know that's kind of stupid, but it has worked for me before. Good luck to you!
1 year ago
I doubt the stars will align for anyone reading this thread, but I came across a hoosier cabinet in central Kentucky on Craigslist that appears to be in close to original condition, if not original condition. They didn't list a price - just that they need it gone by April 20th.
1 year ago
Hi Anthony. That sounds like a fun experiment! I have a couple questions for clarification:

1) You mentioned plural raised beds, then you talked about subdividing a single bed into 4 equal spaces. Does that mean you plan to make multiple of these subdivided beds for the experiment, or just one?
2) Within a 4-square bed, will the two test squares have the same amendments, or different amendments?

I only have three concerns. First, you need replication if you don't already plan on having it - multiple plants grown under the same conditions, not just a single radish under condition X, due to the variability of plants. I would want to see at least three radishes grown under condition X so that you can attribute their better (or worse) growth to the soil/amendments and not just the possibility that you got a freak radish. Perhaps that's already part of your plan if you're going to have multiple experiment beds or repeat the experiments. Second, I'd be worried that the amendments would affect the nearby control soil. I would suggest physically separating the test and control soil. Third, if you do multiple beds or repeat the experiment multiple times, I'd make sure the control and test plots have a mixture of orientations to the sun, wind, or any other environmental conditions. That is, I wouldn't always put the control plants on the side that gets all the wind or always put the test plants on the side that gets all the sun.

I hope you learn a lot from your experiment. I had considered doing a similar experiment in my own backyard this year, but I got overzealous and applied my amendments everywhere. Be sure to take pictures and make notes along the way!
1 year ago