Arcadia Farms

  (Portage, Michigan)
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7 Natural Ways to Control Cucumber Beetles

So far the 2014 garden is off to a great start! At the end of May I shared a summary of what’s going well and what’s not-so-swell. At that time, the garden remained relatively pest-free. However in the short time since that post I’ve encountered to more prevalent invaders. The first pest is a mysterious, large, picky eater. The invader may be a deer, although there are no signs of jumping our 8-foot tall fence and the tracks left in a few places seem a bit large for a deer. (Unfortunately between rain and very soft soil the shape has been difficult to determine.) Whoever has been helping themselves has passed over scores of deer-favorite veggies in favor of our kale and pepper plants, exclusively.

Meanwhile, our other main invader is not nearly as elusive or picky. This year I’ve experienced the earliest and most prolific invasion of cucumber beetles ever. They have recently backed off without intervention from me, so I’m hoping the garden will be able to weather their presence without any (natural) chemical or other intervention from me. Though they have impacted several different crops, so far the only casualty has been my acorn squash (wiped out almost entirely). Fortunately there’s plenty of time left in the Michigan growing season to reseed squash. Just in case you’ve also encountered a cucumber beetle invasion, here’s some information and a few tips for letting them know who’s boss!

Cucubmer Bugs 7 Natural Ways to Control Cucumber Beetles

What Are Cucumber Beetles?

According to our buddies at Wikipedia:

“Cucumber beetle is a common name given to members of two genera of beetles, Diabrotica and Acalymma, both in the family Chrysomelidae. The adults can be found on cucurbits such as cucumbers and a variety of other plants. Many are notorious pests of agricultural crops. The larvae of several cucumber beetles are known as corn rootworms.”

Cucumber beetles actually look like cute little yellow lady bugs. (They had me completely fooled during my first year as a CSA grower!) Don’t be fooled. These little guys want to eat your cucurbits to oblivion. That means they’ll feast on cucumber, pumpkin, zucchini and hard squash plants, to name a few. They also appear to be nibbling on my beans and possibly my ground cherries.

Here is a description from the Farmers’ Almanac to help you identify cucumber beetles:

“Adults are about ¼ inch long and have a yellow and black striped abdomen and a dark colored head and antennae. Look for holes and yellowing and wilting leaves. Crop yield will be low; and plants will produce yellow and stunted fruits. The larvae are worm-like, white, dark-headed, a have three pairs of legs on the thorax.”

Transforming leaves into swiss cheese (or gobbling them up entirely) aren’t the only ways cucumber beetles wreak havoc in a garden. They are also carriers for diseases such as bacterial wilt and cucumber mosaic virus.

Cucumber beetles overwinter in plant debris and wooded areas near your garden. Once temperatures warm, they can move into the garden to begin feasting on your newly transplanted seedlings. While the adults can eat leaves, stems and blossoms, the larva will also feast on the plant’s root system.

How to Control Cucumber Beetles

Here are some natural (or at least, free from synthetic chemicals) methods you can use to address cucumber beetles in your garden.

Click here to read all seven tips on our website.


2013 Farmer’s Report

At the beginning of this month I delivered the final round of produce for our 2013 season. Now that the season has ended, it’s time for me to provide you with our second annual Farmer’s Report. The annual Farmer’s Report is an exercise that helps me analyze what went well, what went wrong and – most importantly – what I’ve learned so that I can apply those lessons to improving subsequent seasons. It’s also a great way for me to share important information with our members and readers.

No One Can Stop You

Before I get too far into the ups and downs of our second season, I want to re-share a little something that inspires me to keep moving forward with this crazy idea of living sustainably.

If you are not willing to learn, no one can help you. If you are determined to learn, no one can stop you.

In 2012 I wrote that:

I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of supportive, adventurous people in my life that didn’t have to pick their jaws up off the floor when I first started talking about quitting my well-paid HR job to start a farm in my suburban backyard. But just like any entrepreneur, I’ve encountered my fair share of naysayers who could come up with all sorts of reasons why I should be afraid. “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” No, I’m not. “You should probably know more about gardening before you do something like this.” I probably should.  “Won’t that be a lot of work?” Yes, it will. “What if it fails?”

I decided a long time ago that I can choose not to stretch beyond my comfort zone because I’m afraid of failing (and then spend my life wondering what would have happened) or I can take the risk of actually putting myself out there and knowing what would have happened. Innovators don’t change the world by being safe and normal. Everyone with a special skill started somewhere – no one is born an expert. People we revere as world-changers are people who realize that if you are determined to learn, no one can stop you.

When I left my full time job to begin Arcadia Farms, I told friends and family that I knew there would be both successes and setbacks ahead of me and that I was looking forward to the opportunity to grow from both of them.  After studying some of the great innovators of history, I’ve come to believe strongly that ‘failing forward’ is a recipe for success. After two years of operating a start-up business, I’ve become more convinced that this is true, but also, I’ve become acquainted with the harsh reality that failing forward is painful. Painful… but worth it.

2013 Recap

This year has been full of new improvements and endeavors. Here are four areas that played a huge role in shaping our year.


chickensIn April I brought you Chicken Week, during which I not only revealed our beautiful birdies for the first time, but I also discussed the case for backyard chickens, how to care for baby chicks, how to design space for chickens in a suburban setting and how to build a low-cost, high-quality chicken coop. Few of you know this, but our chicken ownership actually teetered on the edge of causing both a Right to Farm legal battle with our municipality and the potential of losing our farm entirely. I felt it was best to keep the situation private until resolved but it was a major time, resource and energy suck that occurred right at the onset of our CSA season. Thank God that is behind us! Despite the initial legal stress, life with chickens has been pretty darn good! (Who wouldn’t love six eggs a day?)

There is so much follow up information to share about the chickens that they really deserve their own post. I trust that the details of our actual experience compared to our initial expectations will be helpful to those of you who have considered suburban or urban chickens. Look for this soon!


In 2013 we did this wild and crazy thing called Locavore90. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Locavore90 is (was?) a free program to challenge and equip families in Southwest Michigan to incorporate more local foods into their diet for 90 days.

Buying local has been one of three major focus areas for our farm. Add to that the fact that a locavore (local-only) diet can have significant health benefits for both bodies and economies (click here for an explanation) and you can see why I was really stoked about putting this program in motion! I envisioned Locavore90 as a way to have a positive impact in the community, expand the readership of our blog and to find some fellow locavores who could encourage us (and each other) along the way.

The program began with great enthusiasm and effort. However as the season went on, the Locavore90 posts (and posts in general) became fewer and farther between. I can’t say for certain why things tapered off but here’s my best guess. My initial vision for Locavore90 was to create all of the meal plans long before the season ever began. However, our legal issues regarding chickens in the early winter and spring days drained so much time and energy that I was not able to prioritize the task. After the season started, it was difficult to find time to focus on creating quality meal plans. The time and creative energy invested in the meal plans essentially used up the creativity and time I would normally have used for blogging. I also chose to invest a significant amount of time into family relationships this summer. Mathematically, there should have been enough hours in the day to do everything and do it well. In reality, there just wasn’t enough of me to go around and although I wish Locavore90 had ended on a stronger note, I have peace (in fact, I’m pleased) about the choices I made with how to invest my limited energy and time.

Having said all of that, Locavore90 was still good! I personally gained a lot of valuable information about things like sources for in-season food and the value of raw milk. I also discovered some great recipes which will forever be go-to staples for our family. And lastly I was blessed to get to “meet” so many of you online and expand our readership. Thank you, thank you, thank you for participating! I’m not sure what Locavore90 will look like next year, but just like everything we set out to do, I’ll take the lessons learned from this experience to make it simpler and better the next time around.

Brokered Vegetables

apple boyThis spring I also had the pleasure of announcing that we would be partnering with two other small-scale growers to form a group known as Arcadia Growers Group. This group aims to sell produce to commercial customers such as schools, restaurants, small grocers, and childcare facilities. Our first customer (a local childcare facility) has provided us with an excellent initial experience. We had a slow start due to the unseasonably cold weather this spring, but once deliveries began in July sales have been working like clockwork. Our brokerage work has been very profitable for our partners and has been a good source of supplemental income for our farm.

This endeavor has been personally enriching for me because it helped me realize something: I love sales and marketing! Or more specifically, I love selling and marketing something I’m passionate about and enjoy. This epiphany moment is helping to shape our business plans as I decide who I want to be when I grow up.

If you are a small-scale grower who uses natural methods and you’d like some help selling your veggies to a broader market, please let me know ( We’re looking for more partners to expand our growers group and intend to add additional customers in 2014. Likewise, if you manage an organization that could benefit from local, naturally-raised produce, please contact me. I’m sure we can help you!


Our second CSA season has been a good one. In 2012 I learned several lessons from both our successes and failures and I was eager to implement solutions that evolved from those lessons. Those solutions resulted in larger shares (more veggies each week), less supplementing, reduced waste in packaging, consistent labeling, improved pest/disease control and more consistent application of customer preferences.

Lessons Learned in 2013

Just like last year, I’m walking away from this season having learned several lessons. Following this list will be a more in-depth discussion of what I experienced and the conclusions I’ve drawn from those experiences.

  1. Newspaper pots are not as effective for seed-starting as other options.
  2. Hugelkultur works… I think.
  3. I need to do a better job of managing weeds in my aisle space.
  4. The chicken paddocks need to be improved.
  5. I learned more about specific pest and disease management tools.
  6. There is a certain disease that significantly impacts several of my crops each year. I need to determine if it is really anthracnose and find a way to effectively deal with it.
  7. There is no end to this worry: “Will there be enough and will it be ready when I need it?”
  8. I have to choose between small-scale simplicity and large-scale income (profit).
  9. I need to decide who I want to be when I grow up.

No More Newspaper Pots

kale seedling in newspaper potThis winter I spent a significant amount of blogging time focused on the seed-starting process. I learned lots of tips that I’ve found to be effective, such as soaking seeds, chitting potatoes and planting by moon phases. Another solution I presented to you involved creating newspaper pots for starting seeds. The premise is that you turn waste into a resource by folding an origami-like pot out of newspaper, fill it with potting soil and plant your seed. Later when you’re ready to transfer the seedling to the garden you can place the pot directly into the soil since it will decompose. I also liked the fact that you can label each pot since I have had issues with being diligent in labeling. After reviewing several options for seed starting media, I decided that the benefits of newspaper pots sounded like the best solution. Hundreds of them. I folded hundreds of newspaper pots… I even paid my nieces and nephews commission to help me make some of them! Turns out that this solution didn’t work so well for me. Here’s why…

First, the soil in the pots dries out quickly and requires frequent watering. On the flip side, the pots definitely need drainage holes/slots on the bottom otherwise they get bogged down. Also there was a noticeable trend that the seedlings growing in newspaper pots were less healthy (smaller, more fragile) than seedlings grown in other ways. My presumption is that this issue is caused by a combination of the too dry/too wet conundrum and becoming root-bound. Once these limitations  are added up, the fact that it takes a considerable amount of time to fold and prepare the pots becomes another negative.

I did, however, discover this season the method for seed starting that I plan to use for my future gardens. On several occasions I ran out of newspaper pots and opted to sow seeds directly into trays (like these) filled with potting soil. In every case, the seedlings grown in trays were healthier than those grown in pots. This approach takes up the same amount of space in my greenhouse. Since I have lots of trays (purchased here) and can use home-grown compost for seed starting, I now have the resources I need to operate a self-sufficient seed starting operation. Woot!

Hugelkultur Works… I Think

Hugelkultur trenchesWe have made large financial and time investments into implementing hugelkultur on our farm. The 2013 expansion of our garden is comprised entirely of hugelkultur beds. For the uninitiated, hugelkultur is a German concept which roughly translates to “mound culture.” The overall idea is that woody materials (i.e. logs, brush) buried under a mound of soil will provide both nutrients and water retention as the wood decomposes. The process is touted as a no-irrigation system of growing. For a more in-depth discussion on the pros and cons of hugelkultur, click here.

Our hugelkultur beds started the season as approximately 4-foot deep pits filled with rotting logs and then covered by 1-2 feet of compost. The beds, initially raised mounds, have all settled and are now level with the ground. All of the beds have grown healthy, thriving plants with the exception of one. That particular bed was topped with native soil and not with compost. Though I can’t say it had thriving plants, it did grow several pounds of zucchini (from struggling plants), radishes and is now growing shelling peas. Even with this exception, I’m very pleased with the results from the hugelkultur side of the garden.

And what about the no-irrigation claims attached to hugelkultur? Well, fortunately for our CSA, we had lots of rain this year. Unfortunately for our hugelkultur experiment… we had lots of rain this year. It’s difficult for me to say whether or not the water-retention benefit s of hugelkultur were truly evident as I compared the east and west sides of the garden because of the massive amount of rain we received. All the same, I did observe that the hugelkultur side of the garden appeared to be healthier than the traditional side. If I have time in the spring, I will likely convert a few traditional beds to hugelkultur and do a comparison through the next season. I also hope to convert the entire Fenceline Garden to a shallow hugelkultur bed.

Weed Management in Aisle Space

weed control garden aisleI have a major weed issue. On the west side of the garden (built in 2012) the issue is simply that the aisle space gets unruly and occasionally tall weeds are able to reach over the bed sides (one foot tall), depositing seeds as they grow. The mulch that originally covered these aisles has either decomposed substantially or has been washed away. There are enough gaps (and now enough composted nutrients) available that the aisles were quickly taken over by all kinds of plants this spring. In some areas I laid down cardboard, but I didn’t have enough to cover the whole garden.

The east side of the garden is comprised of hugelkultur beds. Although these are technically “raised beds” they don’t have any hardscape sides – they are simply mounds of compost atop a deep pit filled with lumber and organic matter. In early spring this was no problem because the aisles were still basically sand from all the hugel digging done the previous winter. My intent was to cover the aisles with cardboard and then mulch, but once the season got rolling I prioritized many other things ahead of aisle space. Weeds have very easily and readily moved into the fertile hugelkutlur beds. As you might expect, I have some thoughts on how to address this issue.

Here’s the plan: I’m looking for living ground cover that will choke out the competitors, won’t be so aggressive that it snakes in under the sides of raised beds, doesn’t need to be mowed and can handle foot traffic.  And I’d like fries with that too, please.

In this blog post I shared several possibilities and asked for your opinions. Turns out there’s an option out there I hadn’t thought of at that time: Ajuga. Ajuga is an evergreen, perennial ground cover that can handle foot traffic. While touring some landscaping improvements made at my in-law’s house this summer I noticed that they had some ajuga growing in their front yard. For them it is an unwanted weed so my mother-in-law was more than willing to let me pull some up to take home. I’m currently growing the transplants in my greenhouse and plan to gather more from their place. In the spring I’ll be transplanting ajuga into the aisle spaces.

Meanwhile, I need to do something to give myself a head start in the spring. I’ve just started the slow, labor-intensive process of digging up the sod in the aisle spaces and turning it upside down. I also have a large pile of wood chips still from cutting down several trees to make room for a micro-orchard so I’m using that in some places. My plan is to plant the ajuga directly into the wood chips in a test area and see what happens. Maybe I’m crazy… we’ll find out!

The other necessary solution is that my hugelkultur beds need hardscape sides. I haven’t decided yet if I want to use cinder blocks or lumber. More on that in time.

Chicken Paddock Perfection

Before the division...

Before the division…

Our chicken coop is located in a paddock system. The original design called for four paddocks (fenced areas) each accessible from a separate door in the coop and through which the chickens could rotate. Each paddock is designed to be planted with crops chickens can self harvest (i.e., grasses, greens, berries). Though the numbers on our original design made sense per the experts, the size of each paddock just seemed too small. So instead of four paddock we have two.

Our paddock system is being implemented over time. In other words, we didn’t make time to do it all at once and we’re completing phases when we can. I don’t recommend this approach because it creates a problem… a problem that the system is actually designed to avoid.

When we first got the chickens they roamed the fenced backyard. It actually wasn’t as weird as I thought it would be to have chickens running around. The only real problem – poop. Everywhere. Especially at the back door for some reason. (Thanks, chickens…).  So after a month or two of being outdoors we finally erected a 20’ x 30’ fence around the coop. It was nice to have an area to banish the chickens to that still afforded them the opportunity to forage. However, it became obvious over the next several weeks that corralling the chickens into this 600 square foot area was going to wipe out the vegetation before too long. The solution was to finally raise the fence dividing this space so that we could rotate the chickens between them. That’s when our next and most recent problem developed…

Chickens are drawn to freshly tilled dirt. So any plants I tried to transplant or any seeds I tried to sow were promptly dug up. Eventually we decided to keep them completely out of one section, allowing that paddock to grow. Because this decision was made late in the summer (or perhaps we should call it early fall) the plants have not experienced the kind of established growth they need to withstand six chickens. When spring comes, there will be so much variety springing to life in that little area – sunflowers, kale, lettuce, spinach, strawberries, peas and more!

After the division...

After the division…

Meanwhile the second paddock has been reduced to a poopy mud pit. Our girls are such excellent foragers that I hate it when I have to “lock them up” in there. We’re constantly playing the trade off of keeping them in the muddy paddock but not accumulating poop in the yard or letting them roam the yard and dealing with the mess. And that’s not even the problem… The real problem is figuring out how to get both paddocks “fully stocked” at about the same time. In other words, if we move the chickens to the fertile paddock this spring, there may not be enough time for the muddy paddock to catch up before we need to rotate the birds away from destroying the first paddock.

We’re not exactly experiencing optimal weather for growing at this time of the year, but our initial plan is to keep the chickens out of the paddock entirely for the next 4-6 weeks to give time for at least some ground cover to be established. I’ll talk about that plan in more detail in an upcoming post about the chickens.

Pest & Disease Management

Anthracnose Annihilation

One of my goals for this year was to implement new ideas for pest and disease management. The most prominent solution involved using neem oil. Neem oil is a natural oil pressed from seeds and fruits of an evergreen neem tree found in India. Neem oil is used as a biopesticide and to control diseases like black spot, powdery mildew, anthracnose and rust.

anthracnose plagued beans

Anthracnose plagued beans

With consistent applications early in the year we were able to fight off large-scale white powdery mildew. Plants seemed healthier and bugs weren’t an issue. (Even though we did have some squash bugs, they never caused enough damage to be a true pest!) With the onset of frequent rain I was unable to stick to a regular schedule of spraying neem oil. Of course constantly wet conditions are the perfect breeding ground for mildew and fungus. During this time white powdery mildew began to show up and spread in the garden, as well as the familiar brown-spotted disease that has plagued some of our best crops. Last year after doing some research I self-diagnosed the mystery disease as Anthracnose, which can be prevented and controlled by neem oil.

During the raining season both mildew and anthracnose had their way in the garden. Once things dried up a bit I was able to do a few more applications which helped to keep the mildew in check. Meanwhile, anthracnose has destroyed nearly all of the beans and it also claimed the cucumbers. Over the winter I’m going to work on definitively identifying this continually destructive disease(what if it’s not anthracnose?) and finding ways to address it in 2014.

We’ve done more in the garden to address pests than applying neem oil. First, I planted radishes with squashes to act as a trap crop for vine borers. Guess what? It worked! Worked on zucchini, summer squash, acorn squash, pumpkins and melons. I’ve always had big-time issues with vine borers, but not this year! This tactic will be a staple in my garden going forward.

I also planted borage with the pumpkins and melons. Borage is considered a magic bullet for companion planting. It is known for improving the productivity and taste of many crops. It repels several pests (i.e., tomato hornworms, cabbage worms/moths) and it’s flowers attract pollinators. I couldn’t say for sure that borage solved my pest problems, but I did have pretty good luck with my melons and family pumpkins this year (no disease or pest issues).

And as always, healthy soil is the number one defense against pests and disease. Healthy soil leads to a healthy plant. A healthy plant can do much in its own defense and adaptation. I was absolutely thrilled with the compost we received from Kalamazoo Landscape Supply this year for our garden expansion. The soil on the other side of the garden was great as well thanks to a late fall application of composting horse and goat manure. This fall I hope to add manure to all of the beds to compost over the winter. Each bed will be topped with a mulch of shredded fall leaves.

CSA Stress

I’ve only been doing this CSA thing for two years. However during that time I have had the privilege of speaking with dozens of other producers about the joys and challenges of operating a CSA. I treasure the fact that everyone does things just a little bit differently, and in each case I’ve learned something new. At least one thing, however, remains constant. All of the farmers I’ve spoken with have this unyielding concern season after season: “Will there be enough and will it be ready at the right time?” So many factors – controllable and otherwise – impact the answer to this question. On our micro-farm scale, it’s a big deal when a crop is slow to produce, dies off or brings a reduced yield. After talking to several CSA farmers, I’ve discovered that this stressor is always present regardless of years of experience, acreage or weather patterns. Perhaps someday when we operate on a larger scale we’ll be able to absorb a significant portion of this stress by sheer volume, but that day is still floating out there in the unknown future.

Don’t get me wrong – this year was exponentially less stressful than last year. This year, I knew much better what to expect. This year, I understood that occasional supplementing from other growers is industry standard. This year, I was equipped to better plan quantities and had a more realistic idea of how much yield to expect. This year, there was no drought. But this year… I still had to ask myself several times that stress-tinged question: “Will there be enough and will it be ready at the right time?”

I’ve determined that, no matter how long I operate a CSA, that question – and the stress that comes with it – will remain at some level.

Scale vs. Profit

Another lesson that I’ve learned this year is that I need to choose between two competing factors related to the operation of my CSA. Either I can do this on a small enough scale that I can manage it as a work-from-home-mom who makes a hobby-level profit, or I can grow it into a large, multi-acre operation with a small team of employees who help me bring in a sizeable profit. A small-scale operation has lots of benefits. I work significantly less than 40 hours a week. I’m able to be at home and focus on my family. My schedule is somewhat flexible. I make money doing something I like and without going into debt to do it. The main disadvantage of our small scale is that our profit is commensurately small. Though I don’t have a 40-hour work week, I work far too hard to make as little as I do in terms of an hourly figure. Also, we’re committed to a debt-free approach to business and life so growth has to be slow, steady, and paid for in cash. (In other words, jumping into a 10-acre deal is not possible for us right now.) At the end of the day, our family can pay the bills and put food on the table, but I want to make an income that contributes to my family’s long-term (and big) financial goals.

When I Grow Up

The lessons I’ve learned over the last two seasons have significantly reshaped both the purpose and the operation of Arcadia Farms. Considering these lessons, along with much thought and prayer, we have decided not to operate a CSA in 2014.

Ultimately two overarching lessons contributed to this decision. First, the ever-nagging question “Will there be enough and will it be ready at the right time?” For me, this stress robs gardening of a portion of its satisfaction.

The second main reason we will not operate a CSA next year has to do with our personal family wellness. Fortunately our family was able to enjoy significantly more produce from the garden this year than last year, but we are still receiving less than the equivalent of a half share from our own farm. Because of the small scale of our farm (and thus the small scale of our profits) we determined that it would be a better health and financial benefit to our family to keep the majority of our produce rather than selling the bulk of it. One of the joys I experienced from our earliest gardening days was the successful feeling that came with having an abundance. Though we will still sell produce from highly successful crops (through our Facebook page and mailing list) keeping our bounty will enable us to supply our own pantry and to be charitable with what we no longer have room to keep. After a year of excellent crops and enthusiastic customers, it was a bitter-sweet conclusion to make. All the same, we feel it is the best decision for our family.

What’s Next


We may not be continuing our CSA into 2014, but we’re not going away! We still feel passionately about natural, local, sustainable food and want to help others to experience that successful feeling of bringing in a bounty from the backyard. The focus of our farm is shifting to helping others grow their own food rather than growing it for them. Though we still believe in the CSA model, this “teach a man to fish” approach is more sustainable overall and fits squarely into our mission. In 2014 you can look forward to the following from Arcadia Farms:

  • Gardening classes, especially for beginners, renters and apartment dwellers
  • Food preservation classes
  • A virtual farmers market through social media
  • Brokerage services to connect producers and commercial customers
  • Customized and affordable garden plans for those who need help getting started
  • Consistent blog posts with quality content about gardening and sustainable living

Who knows – maybe someday we will return to the CSA business. But for now, it’s time for our business plan to take a new path. We remain exceedingly grateful to all of our supporters, but especially to our members. Your investment in Arcadia Farms has enabled us to explore a dream that could never have happened without you! Thank you for the enthusiasm you have shown for the work we are doing and our vision of eating natural, local, sustainable food! You and your families have our deepest gratitude.

Best Wishes,

The Shanks


Finding Neem Oil

neem oil natural pesticide

{Image Credit}
Home Depot

Last year I shared this post about my great love for zucchini and my complimentary great hatred for squash bugs and vine borers. I also shared about my equally passionate distaste for white powdery mildew and anthracnose. All of these pests/problems plagued my curcurbits (zucchini, melons, squashes) in our 2012 season. Since then I’ve taken steps to minimize the impact of these Axis of Evil members on my garden, including:

1. No mulch around squashes (it provides a place for bugs to hide)
2. Companion planting of radishes as a trap crop for vine borers
3. Companion planting of beans to provide extra nutrients to cucumbers
4. A bi-weekly application of neem oil

I can’t comment on how effective my no-mulch system has been because it’s difficult to measure how much squash bugs hide. However I can say that with all of these methods combined, I have seen only one case of vine borer damage and only recently (last week) have I seen any squash bugs. Also, I have had zero anthracnose issues and only a limited powdery mildew issue on some golden zucchini. (The golden zucchini are planted in a hugelkultur bed where the soil is 100% native, sandy soil. These plants – presumably – are suffering from having fewer nutrients than our compost-planted crops in other hugels and they have struggled the most of all the producing plants this summer. That being said, they are still producing, even if only a small amount.) Though I clearly still have work to do regarding the insect invaders in my garden, I’m pleased to say that I seem to have found just the right trick to keeping mildew and anthracnose at bay: Neem oil.

What is Neem Oil?

Last year’s issues with these diseases was awful with a capital BAD! In researching the issue, I discovered that neem oil can be a natural solution. What is neem oil? So glad you asked…

According to Wikipedia:

Neem oil is a vegetable oil pressed from the fruits and seeds of the neem (Azadirachta indica), an evergreen tree which is endemic to the Indian subcontinent and has been introduced to many other areas in the tropics. It is the most important of the commercially available products of neem for organic farming and medicines.

The site goes on to say:

Formulations made of neem oil also find wide usage as a biopesticide for organic farming, as it repels a wide variety of pests including the mealy bug, beet armyworm, aphids, the cabbage worm, thrips, whiteflies, mites, fungus gnats, beetles, moth larvae, mushroom flies, leafminers, caterpillars, locust, nematodes and the Japanese beetle. Neem oil is not known to be harmful to mammals, birds, earthworms or some beneficial insects such as butterflies, honeybees and ladybugs if it is not concentrated directly into their area of habitat or on their food source. It can be used as a household pesticide for ant, bedbug, cockroach, housefly, sand fly, snail, termite and mosquitoes both as repellent and larvicide (Puri 1999)[not specific enough to verify]. Neem oil also controls black spot, powdery mildew, anthracnose and rust (fungus).

Where to Get Neem Oil

You can order neem oil online or you can buy it at most home improvement stores. I purchased Natria Neem Oil from Home Depot for about $15. Options include a concentrate which you mix with water or a ready-to-spray formula that has already been diluted with water. I selected the concentrate because I felt it would stretch farther based on the quantity in each bottle. (I also purchased a 1 gallon sprayer similar to this one so I could have a dedicated container.) The Natria Neem Oil says “for organic gardening” right on the package, however I’ve noticed since that other neem oils are listed as being organic themselves while this is not. The next time I purchase neem oil, I’ll select something from the OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute) approved list, which you can find here. The OMRI website also has a “Where to Buy” section.

How to Use Neem Oil

The most important thing to keep in mind is that you must follow the direction on the container! My neem oil is concentrated so I combine a small amount with water. Because neem oil can burn plant leaves under lots of sun exposure, its best to spray plants early in the morning or late in the afternoon. I usually spray in the afternoon because there is still enough daylight/warmth to dry the leaves but I don’t have to worry about a noon-day sun showing up a few hours later. I use neem oil on plants which tend to have disease or pest issues in my garden: Broccoli, cauliflower, squashes, melons, cucumbers and tomatoes. Although the packaging gives no limitations regarding spraying greens, I don’t spray it on any crops where the leaves are going to be eaten. The packaging for my neem oil says that weekly applications are permissible and recommends use either once a week or every-other week. I started in May with weekly applications and transitioned to bi-weekly in June. (On off weeks I fertilize the garden with diluted fish emulsion. With that said, things grew well in July and I confess that I haven’t fertilized in over a month.)

More Info

For more info about neem oil – including info on toxicity in humans and animals (hint: there is little to none) check out this link:

So far, I’m thrilled with the results. Neem oil has enabled me to effectively stave off white powdery mildew and anthracnose in my garden. Although I can’t say for sure that it has been effective at warding off vine borers and squash bugs, its effectiveness might increase if I used it weekly instead of bi-weekly. Before I go there, my next attempt at squashing squash bugs is going to involve a hungry chicken! I’ll let you know how that goes…

Anyone else use neem oil? Other natural fungicides or pesticides? I’d love to hear your ideas!


Local Peach Sources

{Image Credit} Aloha Organic Fruit

{Image Credit}
Aloha Organic Fruit

Another fruit season is underway – it’s time for Michigan peaches! I’ve spent some time looking for pesticide-free peach sources and I’m having a rough time. Molter Family Orchards has organic peaches, but only in limited quantity due to losing some to a May frost. Their CSA members get first dibs (rightly so) and they did delivery a few to the People’s Food Co-Op in downtown Kalamazoo last week.

In essence, that means my efforts to turn up other natural peaches in the area have turned up ‘fruitless’. For those of you who have fervently set your mind to buy only pesticide-free, local produce, I’ve listed an of out-of-the-way source. (Also, I commend you!). For those who are willing to settle for merely local, I’ve also listed some sources for peaches that may have been sprayed but are on the less expensive side. If you happen to know of any local sources for pesticide-free peaches, please please please share with us!

Naturally-Grown Peaches

KlineKrest USDA Certified Organic Produce Farm

U-pick by appointment; Already-picked fruit available at market

1067 Somer Road

Lyons, Michigan 48851

$1 for 3 Samplers
$4 per quart Pre-Picked
$3 per quart U-Pick
$5 per Peck
$20 per Bushel

Conventionally-Grown Peaches

Schultz Fruit Ridge Farms

Call Ahead for U-Pick Hours & Availability

60139 County Road 652

Mattawan, MI 49071


Price: Estimated at $32/bushel – won’t set price until picking starts

Fruit Acres Farm Market & U-Pick

9:00 AM to 5:00 PM Saturday and Sunday

3390 Friday Road

Coloma, MI 49038

Farm Market Phone 269-468-3668

Farm Phone 269-468-5076

$0.99/pound up to 40 pounds and $0.89/pound above 40

Crane’s U-Pick

Hours: MON-SAT 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM; SUN 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM

NOTE: Closed for peach picking until August 9 - always call ahead to make sure they haven't been picked clean!

6017 124th Avenue

Fennville, MI 49408

269 561-5126


They also have nectarines and plums ($0.85/pound)


Where to Find Rhubarb

pesticide free rhubarb

The weather has been cool in Southwest Michigan. That means you won’t find much at the local market beyond greens, herbs and radishes until the weather warms a bit. It also means that May goodies like asparagus and rhubarb may last a while longer. A couple of weeks ago (before my life got super busy) I shared a post with you about where to find asparagus in the area. I’ve also done a little looking for rhubarb, although I confess that my search hasn’t been as exhaustive as my asparagus search. All the same, I want to share what I’ve found with you – a local source for both conventional and a pesticide-free rhubarb.

Conventional Rhubarb

Right around the corner from our farm there’s a family that grows rhubarb in the backyard. This crop does receive at least one treatment of pesticide early in the season. Rhubarb is $2.50 per pound. You’ll find “The Rhubarb Family” at the corner of South Westnedge and Osterhout and their phone number is (269) 327-6987. There’s a sign on the Osterhout side of the street that indicates whether or not they’re open, so if you’re traveling a ways, be sure to call ahead.

Pesticide-Free Rhubarb

I’m so thrilled to have found pesticide-free rhubarb without having to call 10,000 different places! This weekend at the Texas Township farmer’s market I was able to buy it from Bonamego Farms ($3.00 per pound or $5.00 for 2 pounds). Bonamego Farms is in Lawrence (58041 48th Street). Their phone number is (269) 674-3541. If you stop by, please be sure to tell them that you heard about their rhubarb from our website!

We have two teeny-tiny rhubarb plants at Arcadia Farms and this year I planted several more from seed. If we’re lucky, we’ll be harvesting some for our customers next season instead of sourcing it from other growers. I can’t wait, because I love rhubarb and I love the hands-off benefits of perennial foods!

Does anyone else know of sources for pesticide-free rhubarb? Has anyone found a cheaper price? I saw that Rajzer’s Farm in Decatur had rhubarb cheaper (I think $2.25 per pound) however it is conventionally raised (sprayed with pesticide).

I still haven’t decided how I’m going to preserve my leftover rhubarb… I’m leaning toward making sauce or jam. More on that next week!

Have you heard about Locavore90?

Locavore90 is a FREE program provided by Arcadia Farms and Flowerfield Enterprises that challenges and equips families in Southwest Michigan to incorporate more local foods into their diet during a 90 day period. Click here to learn more!


Seasonal Family Garden Plan

One of the things I’m enjoying most about this year’s growing season is the opportunity to help others with their home gardens. Last week I had a chance to chat with a friend and former college roommate – Sara Heilig, about the garden that she and her husband Nick would like to grow this year. The garden is driven by three major factors: The family’s veggie preferences, their space and of course Assistant Gardeners – Emma and Hailey.

The Space

This raised bed is surrounded by chain link fence to the North and West and a custom gate on the other sides.

This raised bed is surrounded by chain link fence to the North and West and a custom gate on the other sides.

The Heiligs currently have an 8’ x 8’ raised garden bed in place. The bed is surrounded on two sides (North and West) with a 4’ high chain link fence and on the other sides with a custom-built gate. The sides of the bed are made of three landscape timbers stacked on top of each other. Also the bed was filled with commercially mixed garden soil about five years ago and has clay earth beneath it.

In addition to this 8’ x 8’ bed, the Heiligs are also planning to build a 4’ x 6’ cedar raised bed inspired by a picture Sara saw here.

Both beds get (or will get) excellent sun. While bunnies are a concern, there are no other potential critter problems (such as deer, raccoons or pets). Also, the 8’ x 8’ bed has a path of stepping stones running through it to allow Sara to harvest the hard-to-reach sections of the garden without compacting soil as she steps into the space. I don’t know exactly where those stones are, so please keep in mind that the plantings for this garden will need to be adjusted slightly to accommodate those stepping stones.

Because they have two distinct garden spaces, this seasonal family garden plan calls for planting each space for a different season. The larger garden will be planted now for spring and early summer veggies. The smaller garden will hold summer veggies. Meanwhile, since the early veggies will be gone by midsummer, the large garden will be replanted for a fall harvest. We’ll talk about this more in a minute, but crop rotation and well-planned companion planting are key to this second round of veggies.

Veggie Preferences

The Heiligs (especially the little ones) love snap peas and beans. This plan provides them with a whole heapin’ mess of beans and peas! They’re also fans of zucchini and would like to try summer squash. Sara is interested in canning or freezing tomato sauce this year so the plan also calls for some roma tomato plants. (Her father is a tomato connoisseur with tons of plants each year so there’s no need to plant slicing tomatoes.) Here are the other plants they’d like to grow:

  • Lettuce
  • Spinach
  • Broccoli
  • Carrots
  • Sweet Peppers
  • Cherry Tomatoes
  • Summer Squash

I also threw pie pumpkins and cabbage into the mix as recommendations.

Spring Garden (8’ x 8’)

Spring Garden 2

The Spring garden (8’ x 8’ bed) features sugar snap peas (Sugar Ann) growing along the North and West side of the garden. Since peas grow on vines, they can be trained up the fence and no additional trellis is needed. Because the climbing peas are to the north and west, they shouldn’t block much sunlight. All the same, I designed the garden so that the sun-loving veggies are to the south (carrots, broccoli) and the veggies that can handle (and sometimes welcome) a little shade are planted to the north (spinach and lettuce). The wee bit of additional shade from the peas may even help the lettuce and spinach to last longer into the season before they bolt (grow a flower and become bitter tasting). The carrots are furthest south in this scheme because they are the shortest and that way their sun won’t be blocked by the taller broccoli plants.

Fortunately all of these cool-weather veggies play nicely together so companion planting is not a large concern. (There are no “bad” combinations to look out for.) Here are the varieties I selected for this garden:

  • Sugar Ann Snap Peas. This is a common garden pea that matures early.
  • Tom Thumb Lettuce. I just loved the idea of little girls being able to pick cute little lettuce heads from their own garden.
  • Rouge d’Hiver Lettuce. I was initially drawn to Rouge d’Hiver lettuce because of striking purple-red color, but reviews indicate that this variety is also very low maintenance and tolerant of a wide array of growing conditions.
  • Bloomsdale Long Standing Spinach. This is a common variety of spinach that resists bolting and has a great taste.
  • Berlicum 2 Carrots. Just a good old fashioned orange carrot!
  • Calabrese Green Sprouting Broccoli. The majority of the broccoli is this Italian heirloom variety because reviews indicate that it is easier to grow than other varieties and produces earlier.
  • Waltham 29 Broccoli. This is the most common home-garden broccoli variety. Reviews indicated that this one grows well too.

      baker creek berlicum carrotbaker creek spinachBaker Creek Rouge d'Hiver Lettucebaker creek calabrese green sprouting broccolibaker creek waltham 29 broccoliBaker Creek Tom Thumb Lettuce

All of the veggies I’ve talked about so far have high yields per square foot. The exception is Broccoli on the other hand has low yields per square foot (only one plant). Because of that, and because this family loves it, I devoted the bulk of the garden to broccoli.

This plan calls for a lot of greens. If you wanted to add some variety, good choices would be beets (the baby greens are delicious!) arugula and chard.

Summer Garden (4’ x 6’)

Summer Garden

The summer garden is smaller and contains all heat-loving veggies. For the most part these guys play well together with one exception: Beans. Tomatoes and peppers don’t like beans so I designed the garden to keep them as far apart as possible. The end result was that I wasn’t able to plant very many beans (which, remember, the girls love) but don’t worry – we’ll make up for that in the Fall Garden.

Because there is no trellis here, the beans are bush beans. Using bush beans also helps to avoid a shade issue since these are all sun-loving plants. The tomatoes, however, will need some manner of trellis. Here are the varieties for the summer garden:

  • Golden Wax Beans. These are also a common garden vegetable with a creamy yellow flesh and a sweet taste.
  • Dragon Tongue Beans. I will grow these for the rest of my life. I love the flavor and they are so beautiful! For a family that loves fresh snap beans, this one is sure to be a winner.
  • Roma Tomatoes. These tomatoes are also known as paste tomatoes because they are great for sauces. We also like them for fresh eating.
  • Black Beauty Zucchini. A classic home garden zucchini plant. It’s a bush variety so no trellis is needed.
  • Crookneck Early Golden Summer Squash. Also a classic. Matures at the same time as the zucchini.

roma tomatoesbaker creek black beauty zucchiniBaker Creek Crookneck Early Godlen Summer Squashbaker creek california wonder pepper  baker creek dragon tongue bush beans   Baker Creek Golden Wax Bush Beans

If the Heiligs are feeling adventurous, they could try substituting Golden Zucchini for the traditional green variety.

Fall Garden (8’ x 8’)

Fall Garden

June doesn’t seem like the time to be thinking about fall. After all , the summer is just getting started! But by the middle to end of June, the sugar snap peas will be in decline and other veggies like lettuce and spinach will be on their way out too, depending on weather conditions. What a shame it would be to leave this 8’ x 8’ space laying fallow when there is still so much fair weather left to the year. Here’s the plan for making good use of that space to continue the harvest well into Fall!

Peas are legumes, and legumes are nitrogen fixers. That means they add nitrogen to the soil. We’re going to take advantage of that by planting a second crop of “heavy feeders” in the place where the peas used to be. (Heavy feeders are crops which “eat” large amounts of nutrients from the soil.) On the West side of the garden, we’ll plant cabbage. Cabbage might not sound like the most appetizing of garden vegetables, but trust me, you will LOVE the taste of homemade coleslaw from home-grown cabbage! Along the north we’re going to plant two cherry tomato plants and another zucchini plant. (The family loves zucchini and unfortunately I wasn’t able to squeeze as much into the Summer Garden as I wanted to.) There’s also an option to plant pie pumpkins or winter squash (such as acorn squash) here… or another zucchini plant. The nice thing about planting these on the North fence is that the climbers (tomatoes, pumpkins) have a built-in trellis and all of the shade issues I mentioned above apply again. Keep in mind that any large fruit (bigger than cantaloupes) will need slings to keep them from slipping the vines.

The placement of the cabbage and tomatoes is important. These guys don’t like each other, so we need to keep them as far apart as possible. Another tricky thing about this garden is that tomatoes also don’t like beans so we need to give them some distance.

However, remember that whole thing about “heavy feeders”? The broccoli that was in this garden in the Spring has “eaten” a lot of nutrients from the middle of the garden. A great way to replace those nutrients naturally is to plant legumes – like beans! Sweet, delicious, snap, bush beans. And tons of them! To keep the beans and tomatoes happy, I’ve placed two rows of carrots between them. With lettuce and spinach to the south of the garden, essentially now we’ve swapped the “root vegetable section” with the “leaf vegetable section.” That’s important because you should never succession plant (plant a second time in the same soil) crops from the same family (because they “eat” the same nutrients).

The varieties in the Fall Garden are the same as the Spring and Summer with a couple of additions:

  • Mammoth Red Rock Cabbage. Beautiful and delicious. What more could you ask for?
  • Tommy Toe Cherry Tomatoes. I grew these last year – they were my best tomatoes!
  • Tendergreen Bush Bean. These beans are supposed to be excellent for preserving – both canning and freezing. If the girls don’t eat them all before frost comes, there will be plenty to save for the winter.

Seed Savers Exchange Tommy Toe tendergreen bush beans Baker Creek Mammoth Red Rock Cabbage Baker Creek New England Sugar Pie

If garden success through the year brings on a desire to try some more “exotic” crops, here are some suggestions for alternatives:

  • Trade carrots for parsnips
  • Trade some carrots for turnips. Just a few – turnips have a very distinct, almost spicy flavor. The greens are also edible and I like them sautéed.
  • Trade some greens for kale or swiss chard.
  • Swap a cabbage or two for cauliflower.

Note: Many of the selections I made for this garden came from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. You can find the same or similar varieties from other companies like Hart’s, Seed Savers Exchange, Sustainable Seed Company, Victory Seeds or Annie’s Heirloom Seeds.


The Heiligs’  garden has some other challenges to address. In the last few years, Sara’s gardens have produced wilty vegetables – or some things have not produced at all. After talking with her about the garden, it sounds like the space is just in need of a nutrient boost since the soil has never been amended in the last five years. Adding a layer (4” thick) of a combination of quality plant-based compost mixed with manure-based compost should do wonders. If necessary, a natural fertilizer like fish emulsion would help during the season. You can find other natural, organic fertilizers (as well as compost) at major home stores like Menards and Home Depot. Follow the directions on the packaging for success.

Basket Full of Strawberries

The garden also has a current, perennial occupant: Strawberries. Sara would like to keep the strawberries, however, they have only produced tiny, colorless berries the last couple of years and clearly need a boost. Once we give the strawberries a boost, they are aggressive enough that they may take over the whole garden! To combat both issues, this plan involves transplanting the berries into containers full of rich, organic soil (same compost mix as the main gardens). For more tips on successful container planting for strawberries, click here.

Another challenge is how to kill some resident grass that just won’t go away. A safe, natural, effective way to kill wayward grass in (or around) the garden is (drum roll) vinegar! The acetic acid in vinegar – especially as it interacts with sunlight – is able to destroy plants without unnatural chemicals. Because vinegar used for household purposes has a relatively low amount of acetic acid, boiling the vinegar in advance may help to concentrate the acid. Some people also say that you can use boiling water to kills weeds (I tried it and didn’t have success) so perhaps boiled vinegar has double the power? Either way, I recommend that Sara apply the vinegar before planting veggies as the vinegar will be just as harmful to desirable plants as it is to weeds and grass. It’s also recommended that the vinegar be applied on a sunny day.

And lastly, we need to talk about a garden pest: Cabbage worms. These guys stink. I ended up picking them off my broccoli by hand last year and it was a stinky way to spend my time. I found that they were also fans of non-cabbage-family things like leafy lettuce. This year I’m going to try placing nylons over my cabbage heads as a physical barrier to keeping the cabbage worms (and white moths that lay the eggs initially) off my cabbage. For more thoughts on keeping cabbage worms at bay, click here.

To download the complete Seasonal Family Garden plan (including info on varieties selected and where to buy them) click here.


10 Ways to Save Money on Food

pie chart

If your household is similar to ours, the grocery slice of the budget pie is sizable enough to get your attention. Most “experts” recommend budgeting 14-20% of your take home pay for food (groceries, lattes, eating at restaurants, etc.). A recent study shows however that Americans are spending less on average than ever before on groceries – 11% of income. That might sound like good news, but consider the story behind the numbers.

A separate study from 2012 shows that while prices – for meat in particular – have gone down, American consumption has in fact gone up or remained the same. What happened? The advent of the factory-farm has succeeded in pushing the price of meat way down. A 2012 article by Tom Philpott (The American Diet in 1 Chart) explains the phenomenon well:

“American eaters have gotten a windfall from the the era of cheap meat that dawned in the early ’80s. Meat prices tumbled as small farms shuttered, to be replaced by massive factory-scale farms that stuffed animals with cheap, subsidized corn and soy and kept them alive and growing to slaughter weight with daily doses of antibiotics. Regulators looked the other way as these gigantic facilities created messes they didn’t have to pay to clean up. Meanwhile, as Mother Jones’ Ted Genoways showed in his blockbuster piece last year on Hormel, corporate meatpackers managed to bust unions, speed up kill lines, and drive down employee wages. It all added up to bargain-priced meat.”

What America Spends On Groceries

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Credit: Lam Thuy Vo / NPR

Consequently, our consumption of processed (read: cheap) food has skyrocketed. In 1982, 11.6% of a family’s budget was spent on processed food and sweets. Today processed food tops the budget break down at 22.9% of the budget, followed by meat (21.5%), fruits and veggies (14.6%), Grains and Baked goods (14.4%), beverages (11.1%) and dairy products (10.6%). So in layman’s terms, we spend less money on food now because the bulk of our diet is ‘food’ processed and engineered with more regard to its cost than its quality.

Save Money, Eat Healthy

So what do you do if you’re interested in saving money AND eating healthy? Don’t despair  – here are some tips.

Cook at Home

When you buy pre-packaged food or eat at a restaurant, you’re paying for more than just the ingredients you consume. (Someone has to pay to keep the lights on, right?) With practice, cooking at home can be just as delicious (sometimes more delicious!) than eating out. Eating at home can save you up to $2,600 a year! And with some savvy, budget-friendly tips (like the tips you’re about to read) you can save even more money! If you’ve never been much of a cook, don’t let that stop you. (Everyone has to start somewhere, right?) I recommend beginning your journey into homemade meals by using a crock pot. It’s so easy – I promise – and the great-tasting meals you produce will give you a boost of confidence to try something new!

Make a Plan

Like a lot of things in life, it’s hard to win without a plan. Your grocery plan starts long before you jump in the car to head to Meijer. Here are some tips. First, keep a pad of paper in an accessible area (on the side of the fridge?) so that you can keep track of grocery needs on an ongoing basis. Did you use the last of the olive oil? Write it down now so you don’t forget it later. The next two tips go hand-in-hand – make a menu and check for sales. Making a menu (meal planning) helps you make purchases that will form complete meals rather than buying a bunch of things that sound good but don’t add up to a complete meal. Having a pre-made meal plan saves time as well because you don’t have to figure out what to make each night. Planning a menu around what’s on sale will naturally save you money. The next tip is to take stock of what you already have so you don’t buy unnecessary duplicates. All of this should be complete by the night before you’re going shopping: Menu created (check!); Inventory taken (check!); List created (check!). Now when you get to the store, you’ll be able to stick to your list without worrying that you’ve forgotten something, and perhaps with a little more resolve to skip over impulse buys! (You can also decrease impulse purchases – like a candy bar at the checkout aisle – by having a small snack before you go shopping).

grocery bag

Buy (and Preserve) Produce In-Season

There are lots of great reasons to buy produce when it is in-season. First of all, the taste is so much better than out-of-season veggies that you may never want to go back! Second, buying in-season, local produce (check out your local farmers market) is great for your community and area farmers. And third of all, it costs less to buy food in-season than it does to buy it when it has to be grown hundreds of miles away and shipped to you through the snow. And if you team up with tip #9 below, you could save even more money at the farmer’s market; Many sellers are willing to give you a discount for buying large amounts of produce if you ask politely. Worried about what you’ll do with all those [fill in the blank here]? If you can’t eat it all now, preserve some of it! Can it, freeze it, dry it. Don’t be intimidated – you can find tons of how-to help on the web (or by asking your Grandma). Then in January when you want wholesome [fill in the blank here] you can skip the trucked-in-from-California produce section of your grocery store and turn to your pantry instead.

Use Sales and Coupons

I confess – I missed the Extreme Couponing movement. I’m not coupon-wielding expert, but I do know that the Sunday paper is full of coupons. As long as those coupons are for things you will actually use, you can save money by using them. Consider taking advantage of frequency type clubs for items you usually buy or places you usually shop (i.e. “buy 10 get the 11th free”). Meijer has a great website (and a great app for your mobile device) for looking up sales. Planning meals around what’s on sale can save you big bucks. If you can swing it, try keeping a “Sale Fund” set aside (perhaps $50 or $100) so that when a great sale comes up, you can stock up and fill your freezer. (Earlier this year we scored some unbelievable Buy One, Get Two type deals at Harding’s… our freezer has never been so full of meat!) Just remember – using a coupon to buy something you otherwise wouldn’t buy doesn’t save you money, even if you get 10% off.

Buy in Bulk

Our favorite place to buy in bulk is from Country Life Natural Foods in Pullman, MI. It’s quite a drive (about an hour) from our home in South Portage, but if you buy several things at once, the trip is worthwhile. We’ve saved money on organic Quinoa (a year’s supply for $30), a year’s worth of honey (1 gallon for $38.50) and 7 pounds of coconut oil ($12.90). They have practically everything you can think of and some of it is Michigan-made. Check out their catalog here. To save even more money, carpool with a friend (thanks Darci!) or take orders from each other and take turns doing the pick up. I’ve never tried it but apparently they also deliver for certain order sizes. We also now save money by buying our herbs and spices in bulk at Sawall Health Foods in Kalamazoo.

Leftovers? What Leftovers?

A great way to save on food is to avoid wasting it. Plan your meals to make the most of leftovers. Here’s an example from our life: Every other Sunday we have a roasted chicken for dinner with carrots, potatoes, peas, beans, onions or other in-season veggies. Monday I use the leftover chicken and veggies in a meal like chicken salad over spinach or a chicken pot pie. After that, I turn the chicken carcass into stock and make soup with it (sometimes using remaining veggies from Sunday’s roast). Even sour milk can be saved from going to waste! You can’t stretch everything that far, but there are lots of leftovers that would go great in an omelet, a salad or soup. If all else fails, send unwanted leftovers to the compost bin rather than the garbage can.

Brown Bag Lunch

lunch bag

A great way to bloat your food budget is to eat out for lunch every day. When my day job involved working from an office instead of working from my living room I discovered some tips to making the brown bag lunch work. I don’t know about you, but there were typically three reasons why I ate lunch at a restaurant instead of from a lunch bag. The biggest hurdle to jump is just remembering to bring a lunch. If you’re serious about saving money, taking a few minutes the night before to pack tomorrow’s lunch is key. Another issue: What’s in the bag just doesn’t sound appetizing. The simplest way to avoid that conundrum is to bring food you’ll look forward to eating! My main way of addressing this was to make fabulous dinners and make sure there were always leftovers for tomorrow’s lunch.  The other reason I skipped a bagged lunch was because I just needed to get out of the office! In warm weather, you can accomplish the same thing by taking your lunch to a nearby park. In yucky weather, sometimes just sitting in your car provides enough peace and quiet to count as “getting away.” I also made sure to bring or keep healthy snacks at work to curb my desire to buy a little something in the afternoon. I always had something sweet (yogurt, a cucumber, dried fruit, etc.) and something salty (crackers, mixed nuts, etc.) on hand to keep my snacking healthy and cheap.You could save more money by stashing homemade snacks like granola.

Frozen and Dried

Frozen and dried fruits and vegetables are less expensive than fresh and in some cases contain the same amount of nutrients. Resealable packaging helps you avoid waste. For tips on how to store frozen vegetables so they keep as long as possible, click here.

Use Cheaper Protein

Meat is expensive. If beef and chicken are choking your budget, try getting your protein in other ways such as beans, eggs, quinoa or legumes. If you grow your own (including raising backyard chickens for eggs) think of all the money you could save by opting for non-meat alternatives. For fabulous egg recipes, click here.

Shop at Home

Overhead of Gardening Woman

Starting this spring, we hope to transition to a family that produces more of our food rather than buying it elsewhere. What if you could remove vegetables, fruit and herbs from your grocery list because you’re shopping in the backyard? Now think about what a difference it would make to take eggs, milk, cheese, butter, yogurt, bread and maybe even meat off the list? We may not all be able to raise our own meat birds or raise goats for milk, but almost everyone (even apartment dwellers) can grow fresh herbs and vegetables. By using an intensive planting method (like Square Foot Gardening) you can grow a surprising amount of food in a small space. Start small with a garden size you’ll be able to easily manage. I think you’ll be amazed at how much you get – and how much you’ll save!

Did you enjoy this article? Visit for more info on eating healthy, saving money and buying locally.  


Natural, Cheap Fabric Softener

In this previous post I shared with you how you can make natural laundry soap that costs about half as much as store-bought, chemical-ridden detergent. (Could be even cheaper if you do fewer than 365 loads per year!). Today I want to give you a similar ‘recipe’ for natural, inexpensive fabric softener:

Natural, Cheap Fabric Softener


White Vinegar


Add ½ cup to the rinse cycle. (If you have a fabric softener dispenser, add the vinegar as you would normally add fabric softener. Or you could use a Downy Ball.)

The Details

Right now you’re thinking one of three things:

  1. Cool!
  2. Yuck!
  3. Really?

(If you had a reaction other than those three…  just… don’t tell me, ok?) Let’s address each reaction.


Really. According to an article on Mother Nature Network:

“Vinegar is cheap and nontoxic, effective and antimicrobial. It naturally softens and as a bonus, it helps to remove soap residue. Finally, vinegar aids in static reduction during drying.”

I’m no scientist so I can’t tell you how it does all those great things, but I can tell you from experience that it works! And not only is the vinegar good for your clothes but it also helps to clean the inside of your washing machine.

I also saw a tip that if you pin a couple of safety pins to clothes in the dryer it helps to reduce static cling.


Plain old white vinegar is not the tastiest or best smelling stuff on Earth. So maybe the thought of it touching your clothes grosses you out a smidge. Don’t worry, friends! Your clothes won’t smell like vinegar, I promise! However, if you use an automatic fabric softener dispenser that may retain a (small!) bit of vinegar smell. If you’re freaked out by the idea of putting something less than rosy-smelling in with your laundry, you could amend your vinegar fabric softener with a tablespoon of aromatic hair conditioner. A natural hair conditioner would be best if you’re going for, well, natural. If price is your main concern, go for something cheap like Suave.


Yeah, it is cool! White vinegar is natural, it’s cheap (less than $2 for 1 gallon) and it works! Someday I intend to learn how to make my own vinegar at home, making it a sustainable solution as well.

 Did you enjoy this article? Visit for more info on eating healthy, saving money and buying locally.  


Homemade Vanilla Extract

homemade vanilla extract in jar

We do a lot of baking at our house. Because we don’t eat artificial food dye and are trying to avoid artificial everything-else, I recently purged all of the unnatural additives from my baking cupboard. I pitched things like neon food dye, regular food dye, artificial vanilla and a slew of other flavorings like “butter” and “root beer.” All that remained was some pure almond and pure peppermint extract.

If you like to bake as much as I do, you know that a touch of vanilla is an important ingredient in many different recipes. In some cases I was able to substitute the almond flavoring, but you know that’s just not the same. Lucky for me I made a neat little discovery about homemade vanilla extract around Christmas time. (I wanted to share this with you earlier but since I was giving homemade vanilla extract as a gift, I decided to wait.)

The recipe for homemade vanilla extract is below. I’ve baked now with the recommended recipe (2 beans) and my own “recipe”, which really is just double the vanilla beans. Last week I used my double-vanilla extract for the first time. I could not believe what a huge difference it made! These were seriously the best cookies I’ve ever made. Ever.

view of homemade vanilla extract in jar from top

When you look straight down into the jar, you can see all of the vanilla beans laying on the bottom. It looks like there are more than four, but that’s just because I cut them in half so that they would lay beneath the vodka in the jar.

closeup of homemade vanilla extract in glass jar

Looking from the side, the homemade vanilla extract is much darker than artificial vanilla flavoring I’ve used.


Vanilla beans can be expensive. For those of you who are in the Kalamazoo area, we purchased our vanilla beans from Sawall Health Food Store. Don’t let the price per pound scare you! I don’t know exactly what it is, but the price is somewhere around $150/pound! I bought four tiny, practically weightless little beans for somewhere between $1 and $2. Vodka can range in price from $10/bottle to $60/bottle. In theory, the higher the quality of your vodka is, the higher your vanilla extract quality will be. We used a $20 bottle and I’m very pleased with the result.

Making your own vanilla extract is super easy!

Click here for the recipe!


Dye from Natural Causes

Straining natural blue dye through coffee filter

I heart food (and my belly shows it!). I hate food dye (and my baking shows it!).

Well, I don’t hate food dye – I hate artificial food dye. My distaste for Red 40 and other unnatural food colorings began when our son started having major issues with hyperactivity, attention deficit and unexplainable mood swings. His school was convinced he had A.D.D., needed to see a doctor and should be on medication. We were convinced that he was an energetic BOY with a very creative imagination… but agreed that he did have trouble following directions, often for no explainable reason because he knew what he should be doing and all signs pointed to the fact that he wanted to obey. While I concede that medication is a good choice in some situations, we much prefer to look for natural answers to issues before jumping for pills.

So we started doing some research… it didn’t take long before we discovered the link between artificial food dye/coloring and health problems in children, especially hyperactivity. Attention deficit and extreme mood swings were also in the list of symptoms.

According to “the three most widely used dyes, Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6, are contaminated with known carcinogens [cancer causing substances], says CSPI. Another dye, Red 3, has been acknowledged for years by the Food and Drug Administration to be a carcinogen, yet is still in the food supply.”

We did an experiment – no artificial dye for the little guy for as long as possible and then we’d see what happened. What did we see? Several things! First, his ability to follow directions, pay attention and control himself was markedly improved after we cut artificial dye in his diet. Second, when he did eat artificial dye – even a relatively small amount – we could see a spike in problem behaviors. And lastly, we saw that artificial dyes are (expressly and sometimes covertly) in a significant number of things that simply don’t need coloring! (Marshmallows have blue dye, some ‘fresh’ tomatoes have red dye on them, meat sometimes has red dye to make it look fresh, etc.)

Angry Grocery Shopping

We quickly discovered how difficult it is to feed kids without giving them artificial color. I had recently become a label reader because of my concern and curiosity about what’s in the ‘food’ we eat. Now I do it religiously. Grocery shopping takes longer. It drives home the point for me of how important it is to produce the food my family eats. And to be honest, grocery shopping has evolved into a task that makes me angry. I love capitalism like most people love the Beatles (seriously) but I just can’t fathom how people working for corporations who put these chemical-ridden, processed health hazards with pictures of dinosaurs and princesses onto grocery shelves can sleep at night! It makes me mad that I have to scour the label to make sure I’m not poisoning my family – and that even after reading I can’t be 100% sure I know what’s in there. (Have you ever read the ingredients list for lunch meat? Yeah, I said ‘list’, as in five or six things other than just ‘turkey’.) Grrr…

Happy Frosting

Cupcake with red raspberry dyed frosting

This pink frosting is made using dye from red raspberries.

So there. Every two weeks when I go to the grocery store I get a little hot under the collar. But let’s move on to something a little more sunshiney-puppies-kittens-balloons-and-smiles-ish, shall we? I like to cook and bake so I haven’t minded that whenever Owen is invited to a birthday party, I have to bake some dye-free cupcakes for him to take along. (He doesn’t mind either – he’d rather eat a separate cake than deal with the affects of artificial dye on his behavior!) So far I’ve had a chance to experiment with different homemade cake mixes and frostings. (We especially like this frosting recipe – I substituted almond extract for the vanilla and it was delicious! We’ve had it with and without cocoa.) Once we used the chocolate frosting, otherwise it has been plain old white. Owen doesn’t seem to mind, but I think we would both enjoy a little color.

Owen was invited to a birthday party today, so today I whipped up some butter cream frosting along with natural food dye – red, purple, blue, and orange! Hooray!

Wouldn’t you like to try baking with natural food dyes? Not only are you avoiding chemical health risks, you’re also adding a teeny bit of nutritional value to what would otherwise be a delicious lump of creamy sugar! Scroll down for recipes and my thoughts on how they taste.

How to Store Natural Food Dye

But one quick note before we get to the recipes: Those tiny squeeze bottles of artificial dye sitting among your baking supplies don’t spoil or go bad. {Selah} Natural food dye won’t last a decade like the fake stuff. You’ll need to store it in the fridge in a sealed container (mason jar with a tightly closed lid?). I can’t say for sure how long it will last, but one article I read said it will go bad after two weeks. Signs that the coloring has gone bad are an odd odor or mold spores. If you want to refresh the coloring after one week has gone by, try bringing it to a boil for 30 seconds which would kill any mold spores but will likely deteriorate the color. Consider this your excuse to bake more sweets so you can use it all up in the two week window!

Another idea: Freeze the coloring in ice cube trays for on-demand, small quantities of color at a later time!

Pale purple forsting on cupcake

This pale purple frosting is made using dye from a red cabbage.

Natural Food Dye Recipes and Reviews

When using natural food dyes, substitute the dye for liquids used in your recipe. I’m currently working on developing some concentrated dye that can be used more like conventional dye and that is preserved with ascorbic acid or vodka for long-keeping. I’ll update you when I have those experiments figured out!

Natural Dye Recipe

2 cups chopped fruit or vegetables

1 cup of water (approximate)

* Add chopped fruit/vegetables to small saucepan

* Simmer on medium heat until desired color and consistency is reached

* Once fruit/vegetable is soft, mash with fork or potato masher to expel more color

* Strain mixture through coffee filter or cheesecloth into a glass container

* Clean saucepan; return strained juice to saucepan and boil down to further concentrate color

* Allow dye to cool before using


Taste: There’s definitely a raspberry taste to the frosting when using this dye. I’ve read that beets are the way to go when you want red dye with very minimal taste. However at the time of writing this post I decided to use only things I had on hand, including frozen raspberries. Perhaps I’ll go dig up some beets for a follow-up post.


Taste: No cabbage taste but there is a cabbage smell to the dye all by itself


* Follow same instructions but add small amounts of baking soda to the dye as it cools to obtain the desired color.

Taste: No cabbage taste but there is a cabbage smell to the dye all by itself


Taste: No carrot taste


Haven’t had a chance to try this yet!


What is Sustainable Living?

In January of this year I wrote Our Story and mentioned that I would eventually share with you why we believe a micro-farm provides health (sustainability) not only for our family but also for the community. Since that time, I’ve used the term sustainable living several times. Now that the main growing season is over and my focus is turning to more of the non-gardening aspects of the farm, this seems like a good time to share those thoughts with you.  [Read More]
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