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Homestead happenings: surpluses flowing towards needs

April 26, 2011

Have you heard? Matching your curtains to your clothes is totally back in style!

I’m all abuzz over this skirt I sewed for Rose. (Just don’t look too carefully, especially at the fraying ribbon-hem, which started unraveling minutes after she put it on, damn.) This one was truly easy – like sewing a curtain for an elf’s VW bus. And even though I have no fashion sense and Dan’s had to conduct some wardrobe interventions with me (confiscating the holey underwear, banning the greasy jacket), I suddenly want to sew skirts for everybody! I even offered to sew one for Col, who politely said he’d prefer a vest. I think I have enough bird fabric to sew a vest for Col, but, hello? I’m thinking a vest is the sort of sewing project that requires patterns and perfect attendance in 11th grade Home Ec. (this is my thinly-veiled plea for suggestions and tutorials, by the way. But you knew that.). Why do you all live so far away?

*somebody's* idea of a joke

*** ** ***

A 6512 reader sent me this e-mail last week, about how her family income decreases in the winter, in response to our own tightening of the belt:  “i have learned to see the decreased income as a blessing rather than a worry.  it forces us into a slower, more creative life that we actually enjoy more than the busy, higher-income summers.  everything comes to us just when we need it whether i worry about it or not.”

Between the occasional waves of panic, this is exactly how I’ve been feeling lately. It’s like my neural circuitry has been rewired. Where the electrical impulses used to fire: lets just go pick it up at the store, these new neural pathways—I picture them as no-nonsense, matronly, Southern grandmas—put their hands on their ample hips and say, now honey, put that wallet away. Let’s go dig around and see what we can find for free.

Some changes are easy and straightforward.

I stopped writing in coffee shops and my new work station is at the east end of our public library, overlooking the Animas River (coffee is allowed, hallelujah!). I’ve been watching canada geese lead their fuzzy, orange goslings around the bank, which is a better way to procrastinate than even Facebook.

the view from my new office, and very red socks

Some changes are more magical.

We’ve begun a trade with a friend of a friend who works at a local brewery. Once a week he comes over with a growler of our favorite nut brown ale and a six-pack of assorted low-fills and we give him a bag of greens and some eggs. “It’s like your own CSA,” a friend said. Or as Dan says: a BSA (beer supported agriculture).

Beer guy! We love you!

We’re like teenagers exchanging illicit goods for how giddy we both are about the trade. Bartering is all about surpluses flowing towards needs, both of which all of us have. And when Beer Guy beams at his bulging bag of spinach, lettuce and chard and says “you spoil me,” I want to slip a pint of homemade mayo in his backpack and bury capitalism in the compost pile.

*** ** ***

After I wrote a script for the NPR show Earth Notes on hoop houses (do you like how I worked that in?), Dan set up some hoops over our carrot bed and for a week they sat there doing nothing while I glumly priced greenhouse plastic. And then my friend Natalie announced that she had some extra 6-mil greenhouse plastic which she’d be happy to trade for vegetable starts from our greenhouse. Surpluses flowing towards needs.

It's so warm and steamy in there, when I poke my head in my glasses fog up. And for the record, covering the carrot seeds with the blankets sped up germination by only 5 days, but we got the best germination rates yet!

There was some plastic left over, and with random wood scraps Dan had saved for a decade, he built this coldframe.

Spinach clumped at one end and baby lettuces and beets popping up all over

A closer look:

*** ** ***

I’ve stopped buying cheese from the store (gulp). So far everyone, except Rose, is happy with the feta-style cheese I make from raw cow milk, which at 4$/gallon (equals a week’s worth of cheese) is a bargain.

*** ** ***

My friend Steph’s dad dug up a patch of raspberries and Col and I rescued a few buckets of bare-rooted canes. We put the chickens to work, prepping the bed,

after adding some of my new favorite goat manure,

and a few pounds of coffee grounds donated by a local coffee shop (raspberries like acidity and the matronly Southern grandmothers love that I didn’t buy a bag of whatever the nursery was recommending to boost acidity).

And now those raspberries are leafing out! It’s like hearing your baby’s heartbeat for the first time. There’s life in there.

*** ** ***

I put 5 tomato plants in the ground last weekend, which is sheer craziness (it’s supposed to get down to 18F tonight), but I’m experimenting with these 5-gallon water jugs I found in a trash pile last fall. The sun heats them up during the day, and at night they radiate warmth like a hot water bottle under the blankets (you could use 1-gallon milk jugs).

*** ** ***

In the spirit of bartering, I’m looking for some nastursium seeds. I have a surplus of gooseberry bushes, apple mint and comfrey plants that need to get dug up. What are your surpluses and needs? And, any tips on simplifying your budget?



* also, thank you for your generous and loving comments on The Weather Inside and A Tale of Two Nursers. I was nervous about posting both. I think most people think of extended breastfeeding as like 18 months, not uh, almost 4 years.

* and for the record, while I’m curious about voluntary simplicity and what these frugal Southern grandmas have to teach me, I don’t think there’s anything sexy about poverty.

* and one more: Aldra writes a great blog about voluntary simplicity called Consciously Frugal, check it out. And check out this cool idea on internet bartering. What are your favorite resources on voluntary simplicity?

36 Comments leave one →
  1. April 27, 2011 7:12 am

    I totally wish I could trade you some vest sewing help for apple mint. Or better yet, homebrew. I wish I could think of some handy tip, but the truth is, you all ready do all the stuff I can think of. Our main sucker of money is food. I don’t even want to talk about what we spend on it. And I make our bread, yogurt and buy ingredients, not premade food. But luckily all the other simple living balances it out…
    And in the end, you do find you get what you need….. somehow it just happens.
    I figure when my kids are grown I can tell them “you may not have parents that paid for your college, but damn it, we fed you well.” And really I think both of those things will make them better people :)

    • 6512 and growing permalink*
      April 27, 2011 9:59 am


      Same for us. The bulk of our money goes to food and we too buy ingredients. You know, modern Americans spend the least percentage of their income on food, and it’s not because we eat the least – such a screwed up food system we have, but that’s another topic entirely. Yay for homebrew.

  2. Kathy permalink
    April 27, 2011 7:16 am

    Just draw up a simple little vest with a sheet of newsprint and go for it! It’s a two-piece thing; cut the front twice and put the back on the fold. Trim as you like. You can do it!
    What a great idea. You could make fun seasonal vests and skirts. The kids would love that!
    Wish I was your neighbor; I’d be right over to help you draw it out. And I’d bring all kinds of extra pieces of fabric I haven’t used yet.
    I bet you could even build a vest that looked like deerhide (curduroy? heavy cotton?) with strips as fringe. Just cut the vest parts long and cut thin strips up from the bottom. And maybe sew along that edge so the fringe doesn’t tear up too far into the vest body. Col could paint symbols on it too!
    Rose could have a deerhide skirt.
    Sorry, I can get carried away with sewing projects. I used to create costumes for the local community theater.

    • 6512 and growing permalink*
      April 27, 2011 9:59 am

      I love the fringe idea!

  3. April 27, 2011 7:24 am

    aw…man. i want to be in your BSA!!! how fun!

    seriously though, thank you for this post. we are in a really difficult financial situation right now (and i am not handling it with the same level of grace). i really needed this shift in perspective.



    ps ~ i really like gretchen’s blog, wrinkled cloth napkins….her husband recently lost his job and she’s writing about their family’s journey to live more frugally (along with many other wonderful topics).

    • 6512 and growing permalink*
      April 27, 2011 10:17 am

      Thanks for the link!

  4. April 27, 2011 7:56 am

    I have nasturtium seeds, and have been wanting some mint! (If i owned my own place I’d be up for the gooseberry bush!). I loved this post! xoxo

    • 6512 and growing permalink*
      April 27, 2011 10:01 am

      Steph, I love it! Ask and you shall receive! I have apple mint and spearmint!

  5. April 27, 2011 8:01 am

    How do I get in on the BSA? I don’t have fresh greens but maybe a pot or two of homecooked soup I can trade for beer?

  6. Melissa permalink
    April 27, 2011 8:04 am

    Holy smokes, girl, you are the generous one!!

    Thank you, thank you! for the beautiful package!! I was so excited to get it the other day (then we had incoming in-laws and a crazy Seder) and have been meaning to reach out to you–such sweet clothes and if I may say so, Lilit will look so cute in them (:

    Avi and I had a nice time going through the photos in your nursing post–such a beautiful piece. I love nursing so much!

    We are really keen on spreadsheets for our budget around here. I don’t have any big advice (we owe so much money to the IRS that we have to take out a loan to pay it–whoops) except that money is simply energy, right? And it really does always work out. I like the slower pace, too, and getting creative about what we have versus just running out to get something . . .


  7. April 27, 2011 9:07 am

    Yay skirt! Yay cheese! Yay NPR scripts!

    And thanks much for the positive words on frugal living. I’m not sure yet when I’ll have a gig after the current one finishes up on 5/9 … And really, it would definitely be a good idea for me so slow down. For just a bit.

  8. April 27, 2011 10:10 am

    Congrats on the NPR gig. Gotta love everything those folks do.

    And I love beer however it flows into people’s homes.

  9. April 27, 2011 10:24 am

    awesome. some awe! what a lovely flow you have gotten yourself into…

  10. April 27, 2011 10:26 am


    You have, very eloquently, and in a nutshell, described my lifestyle. Minus the beautiful garden and the brewer friend, that is. I’ve written about this a little recently on my blog, but I’m finding that as an immigrant single mom working part time from home, this is the only way to live. But now that I’m living this way and have been, increasingly so, for a couple of years, I’d never go back, even if I won the lottery (which, don’t get me wrong…I’d love.)

    What are my resources?

    **the thrift store, garage sales
    **repurposing, repurposing, repurposing
    **realizing what we can, in fact, do without
    **being honest about my situation and looking into low-income options for things (like a local CSA, which, hallelujah, is offering a low-income option)
    **simplifying as a general rule
    **the free section on craigslist
    **making it known that we need something. You’d be amazed at what appears when you make it known you need it. I could tell stories…
    **finding things on the side of the road (which, in Montreal, is like shopping at an amazing thrift store where everything is free if you can find a way to lug it home)

    I have oh so many more, but I don’t need to make your comments section enormous.

    And I love the skirt! Is it the Oliver and S pattern? I think maybe you said that but I missed it. I’m hoping to make a few for my little chickadees.


    • 6512 and growing permalink*
      April 27, 2011 10:38 am


      “**making it known that we need something. You’d be amazed at what appears when you make it known you need it. I could tell stories…”

      I’d love to hear your stories about this and my guess is that people are inherently open to this sort of exchange, wanting to flow their surpluses towards needs.

      Thank you for your comment.

    • 6512 and growing permalink*
      April 27, 2011 10:40 am

      Oh, and that was an Oliver and S skirt pattern, except I don’t know how to use patterns, so I just copied the ribbon idea (ribbon found in my sewing basket from 6 years ago, as well as the right length of elastic!) and followed the skirt-making directions of a generous 6512 reader, Chi-An.

  11. April 27, 2011 10:28 am

    Oh, and I have packets full of nasturtium seeds. If only I were in the same country! International postage would cancel out the worthiness of the exchange :).

  12. April 27, 2011 12:19 pm

    LOVE the curtains, and the skirt. A vest is easy…you’ll do fine. If Col already owns one that fits, you could just trace the pieces on a paper bag, add a seam allowance and sew them together at the sides and shoulders and fold under the edges (or, if you’re feeling fancy, cut out another one in a complimentary fabric and make it reversible, by leaving one under the armpit side unsewn for turning).

    I love your bartering system and your garden is amazing…we just got out asparagus plants in the mail…and I was very put out with the seed company for sending something that needs so much prep on a Tuesday!! I would gladly trade sewing services for gardening labor, but I think the commute might cancel out any benefits for either of us!

  13. April 27, 2011 2:07 pm

    Thanks for the shout out! Much appreciated. And please send a warm cyberly hug to the wonderful reader who sent such a beautiful note. Sometimes, it’s so hard to just trust in life, particularly when it comes to money. Yet, it always seems to work out. I forget that sometimes.

    Again, I find myself yanking out lines I wish I had written: “I want to slip a pint of homemade mayo in his backpack and bury capitalism in the compost pile.” Seriously? How does this stuff flow out of you? I would say that I’m jealous, but I love reading your words so much there just isn’t any room left for anything but appreciation and celebration. Chops, woman! Ya gots such awesome writing chops.

    And, of course, I want Rose’s skirt for myself. So. freaking. cute!

  14. April 27, 2011 3:00 pm

    ” I want to slip a pint of homemade mayo in his backpack and bury capitalism in the compost pile.”

    this sentence made my heart leap with a grin. YES.

    our life is forced simplicity/voluntary joyful embracing of it…. i think my best resource is my own version of the southern grandmamas…some internal steely character that says, “you could do that yourself, you know.” otherwise, my inspiration comes from folks like you, and other amazing frugal creative types, esp in the blog world.

    (and congrats on the npr gig!)

    • 6512 and growing permalink*
      April 28, 2011 3:43 pm

      forced simplicity/voluntary joyful embracing of it…that’s more accurate, thank you. I was struggling with the wording because our new vows of simplicity aren’t exactly voluntary. But then I realized that Dan and I could both work full time (and put our kids in a lot of childcare) and make more money, but that is entirely unappealing, so some of it is sort of voluntary.

  15. Molly permalink
    April 27, 2011 4:04 pm

    Just wanted to share this concept of applique-ing sweet fabrics on already existing clothes: It works best with mystery stuff you get at fabric stores, makes iron-on’s out of any fabric. Best if it’s then reinforced with stitching, usually. This probably doesn’t make best use of your on hand materials, nor do I have nasturtium seeds. But I like the idea :)

  16. April 27, 2011 4:15 pm


    have you ever read Corbyn Hightower’s blogs:

    they speak to a lot of these issues …


  17. April 27, 2011 5:31 pm

    Voluntary Simplicity!? Now you’re in my neck of the woods! I’m a simplicity addict! :) It sounds like you and your pals should organize an annual spring trade – plants and seeds exchange. It’s a great excuse to dig up your extras, and a fun way to meet new people and get stuff you never knew you needed! I love you BFeeding post, too I just read it -(I’m on vacay) Both that post, and this one, are VERY affirming! Thanks for that! I love the notion that what one needs, will come at the right time. It’s something I’ve found to be true time and time again! Lastly, props on writing for NPR! Sexy!

    • 6512 and growing permalink*
      April 28, 2011 6:38 am

      I’ve done a few seed exchanges but I love the idea of a plant exchange! Thanks Ami, and I hope your vacay is fabulous.

  18. coleen permalink
    April 27, 2011 5:54 pm

    I absolutely love the skirt!! Wish it were in my size :D.
    I’d check in the library for some frugal/living simple books, there are alot of great ones. Right off the top of my head I can think of an author Janet Luhrs (sp) and of course Tightwad Gazette. I think your headed in the right direction, keep up the good work.
    You can e mail me if you want and I’ll be happy to give you some more ideas…..

  19. April 27, 2011 8:47 pm

    You could also use on of Col’s t-shirts as the basis of the vest – just ignore the sleeves altogether. It’s the sleeves that make sewing hell, anyway. That and the zipper foot, evil, demonic thing.
    I love your cold frame. I am wondering if I leave the picture open on the computer enough times, something will trickle in and percolate in someone else’s brain. I spend an unhealthy amount of time looking at real estate, wanting to garner just a tiny bit more outdoor square footage, with more sun, and LESS indoor square footage. Though, having said that, I was just today thinking about my thrift store/yard sale approach of sometimes taking home something good, just on a hunch, and then, presto, some time later, someone (sometimes it’s me…) is looking for just.that.thing, and on that same drive, I was thinking about how times of reduced income take a certain stress away – I never have to decide whether or not to buy an essentially luxury item.
    We too spend a lot of money on food. I blame the cheese. I would love to get my hands on raw milk, but I think I’d have to get a cow.

  20. April 27, 2011 8:48 pm

    I meant, trace the shape of Col’s t-shirt, minus the sleeves. Sorry to be the excessive commenter…

  21. April 28, 2011 12:34 am

    I have extra nasturtium seeds. I would some spare comfrey and gooseberry bushes. I also have goat milk to trade as well…. :)

    • 6512 and growing permalink*
      April 28, 2011 6:45 am

      Sarah, let me know when you’re in Durango next, I’d love to trade some goat milk for comfrey and gooseberry plants!

  22. April 28, 2011 10:33 am

    oh man. i need to find a bsa program near me. :)
    now while i’d agree that there is nothing sexy about poverty, you make it look pretty darn sexy, mama.
    i can’t take time to read through comments and see if you’re already set for the nasturtiums, but i have a spot in my community garden where there are bunches of nasturtium seeds but it’s not like they’re saved and dried and all that but they are just lying there ready to go/grow. if you’re not picky about them being a little raw i would love to trade for some comfrey!
    can i borrow dan to build my cold frame? i have lots of hoarded gross half rotten boards with nails in them and a nice piece of auto glass for the lid.

  23. Katie Burford permalink
    April 28, 2011 10:36 am

    Nothing makes me feel so right about living in Durango than that spot you mentioned at the library. Last summer, with a deadline breathing down my neck, I abandoned the office and cranked out a four-day series there in two days. I was so right with the place, the writing flowed like water (as did the coffee). … Thanks so much for squeezing in the gardening tips among your artfully lyrical musings. Did the tomatoes weather the freeze? I almost put ours out last weekend with row cover and old Christmas lights to keep them warm but chickened out. … One of my favorite things to make with Bruce’s amazing milk is paneer cheese — it’s cheep, easy and keeps well in the freezer. My favorite dishes to make with it are Saag Paneer and Shahi Paneer w/ homemade naan (also easy). … Congrats on the NPR gig, gonna check it out right now :)

    • 6512 and growing permalink*
      April 28, 2011 2:37 pm

      Katie, all 5 tomato plants survived with insane amounts of protection: nestled against water jugs filled with warm water and 2 thick blankets on top as well (and 3 plants are also inside a cold frame). I haven’t tried paneer cheese yet (love saag paneer), although most of the cheese I’ve made so far turns out sort of similar: mild, soft and salty.

  24. April 28, 2011 9:38 pm

    Can I just say I love your blog. Love it. You inspire, educate, generally kick ass. Too bad I’m only at about 5,000 feet, because I would love to get together and dig in the dirt. :)

  25. jamie permalink
    April 29, 2011 12:37 am

    I dont have anything to trade, I dont live in Durango… I wish I did and I hope too, again, someday. I love Ska and I love raspberries!

  26. rose permalink
    April 29, 2011 4:58 pm

    see if you have a freeconomy group near you:

    the guy who started that also wrote a book called The Moneyless Man which I found inspiring. i’m glad to see you are finding a groove. just sip that beer and let those waves of panic come and go. maybe this shift towards simplicity isn’t totally voluntary, but after a while you might find yourself feeling grateful for the push. it’s been very freeing for us.

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