One Foot in the City

Old Farmhouses, Big Quilts

One Foot in the CityWhile serene photos of lovely farmsteads inspire, the perception of a simple, easy life from the past may be based on wishful thinking rather than experience. While we all have some good memories of farm life, it was also a tough time in a practical sense, as our houses were built as boxes with a shell of siding on them. That shell, and perhaps a door and window, was about the only difference between the house and the barn. In other words, they were cold (or hot) and drafty. The wood pot-bellied stove was the only thing between us and frostbite. (You laugh, perhaps, but a house would drop below freezing overnight if it weren’t for the slow burn of the logs! We found anything close to this unpleasant and painful.) Many of us still live in those 100-year-old houses, although thankfully improved.

A necessary early fall activity was to cut firewood for the winter. Unlike Laura of the Little House series, we did not go off to the piney woods to find it as the two major sources of firewood were the native red cedar of Kansas and the Osage Orange hedge. Cutting the cedar was nasty due to the many-stemmed trunk, as well as the irritation of the sawdust. The trim-out was done with an ax, but was not an easy task for children. The hedge, on the other hand, was a cleaner tree to trim out if one avoided the thorns, but hedge is a very dense tree, which made cutting a difficult and time-consuming task. Cutting wood was definitely something we all had to do, each contributing something to the process. Several cords of wood were necessary for the winter, so the sawing was done by a home-built rack contraption attached to the front of the tractor, which, when lowered, would engage the rough-trimmed log with a huge saw blade mounted on the fly wheel of the tractor. About as safe as a flying chainsaw, we all learned to steer clear of the wheel and any flying debris from the rack.

Our house was typical, Midwest, farm shack. It was square with two bedrooms, a kitchen, and living room in 900 square feet. The parents slept in one bedroom and all children in the other. To keep warm, mothers and grandmothers would create quilts from heavy scraps from coats or work clothes, back it with flannel, and stuff it with cotton batting that would pull apart on the first washing, forming lumps throughout the quilt. These quilts would be piled upon the bed six or seven deep, and although they were quite warm once three kids were underneath, it was the getting under that we hated. An unheated room was cold to the bone, so the mattress as well as the quilts had to be warmed by our meager body heat.

Old homemade quilt
75-year-old quilt of wool and cotton.

Eventually home improvements were made, and our lot improved. The concept of insulation in homes helped on heat loss, and propane became available at the co-op, making the addition of a gas floor heater possible. While this provided us all a place to sear grill marks onto the soles of our shoes, it still was inadequate to heat bedrooms, so our quilt piles continued. A few years later a wall furnace was added, so we shed half of the quilts from our stacks, but there was never a time when adequate heat was supplied to the bedrooms to reduce the pile to a single layer. Not until we discovered the miracle of electric blankets. To this day, though, I don’t understand why we had a rule of not turning up the heat dial for fear of wasting electricity.

Begone, big quilts. Years later, I would see old quilts in pickup trucks serving as furniture pads during a move. I would even see them providing warmth as dog beds when farmers hauled hay or feed and allowed the dog to travel with them. Old quilts found their way to the floor of the shed, to old trunks, stuffed under mattresses, and I suppose, eventually to the dump. They had served their purpose.

Old homemade quilt
Quilt featured hand quilting and slumped batting.

Over the years, I learned to quilt more intricately and dropped a goodly amount of money learning quilting skills. As I eventually made quilts for my boys, they were given with the warning that I would probably be forced to violence if they were ever used to pad furniture or warm the dog. (Use as a cozy cat-bed was an exception to the rule.)

But time has a way of making the familiar less cherished, and this year, as I was cataloging all the quilts I have made and given, I was missing a particular one made of oriental fabric. It was a lovely thing, with goldfish and large poppies and a great contrast of colors, orange and black. The missing quilt was finally accounted for with my son’s simple statement, “Oh, I know where it is.”

I waited. He shrugged. “It’s in the storage unit, covering up my motorcycle.”

You might think my self-control was lost at that moment, but it was not. I’ve learned over the years that boys have an entirely different and creative way of looking at the world. Using a quilt in this manner was a logical solution to a problem and not an intent to disrespect my work. And so my response was to acquire an air of calmness as I spoke.

“Oh, good. I’m happy to know where it is. Not many quilts get the opportunity to warm a Harley.”

Old houses, big quilts, and boys can make you a little snarky sometimes. And I do think there is some interest in seeing the many uses of a quilt. After all, a tarp clearly wouldn’t have been adequate in this situation.

Old homemade quilt
Although old, this quilt still serves for padding.

Invasion of Black Blister Beetles

One Foot in the CityI have had a few insect problems in my flower and herb garden over the years. For several years, grasshoppers attacked, eating any and everything green and even ate the bark off the small trees. Although I have not seen black blister beetles for several years, this year they have arrived and are doing great damage.

Black blister beetle 

Blister beetles will feed on just about any leaf that grows in your garden. They have now removed the chard from the garden and are starting on my hostas. They seem particularly fond of certain weeds that grow in the pathways. The experts tell us they can arrive in swarms, and indeed, they do seem to have done so. 

The one redeeming quality of black blister beetles is that they also do damage to grasshoppers, one of the most destructive farm and garden pests. “Newly hatched beetle larvae use their legs to seek out clusters of grasshopper eggs to feed on. In this sense, blister beetles can be considered a beneficial insect, but only in the larval stage. Once they become adults, they’re nothing but trouble” (

black bettle 2 

Planet Natural has a comprehensive list for control of blister beetles which I have abbreviated below with comments:

• I should have been more observant earlier, but I was so busy trying to control Johnson grass that I overlooked insects. Planet Natural recommends “frequent and careful inspection of home gardens. The numbers increase gradually in the growing season’s early months, and an observant gardener can keep them from doing much damage.”

• I am not sure I approached the problem in the correct way, as I donned rubber gloves and hand-picked the beetles, then stomped them. Planet Natural recommends to “never handle blister beetles with bare hands. Always wear gloves. Brush the beetles off plants into a small container with some soapy water. If shaken from plants, the beetles will often lie in the dirt and play possum rather than scurry away. Take advantage and gather them carefully.”

• I noticed some plants attract black beetles – plants I would call weeds. One of their favorite plants turns out to be pig weed, which I don’t have a lot of, but it must be enough to attract. Planet Natural suggests we keep grass, weeds, and other growth trimmed around the margins of the garden to remove the places where they might get started. I am doing this, so hopefully I can get these guys under control.

• I haven’t tried row covers, but I’m ready to try them now. Plant Natural suggests that “Well-anchored row covers can keep migrating beetles off your plants in the mid to late summer. They will not stop early season adults who over-winter as late stage larvae in the soil. Use them if you notice clusters of beetles (or expect them) in and around your garden come July.”

• Turns out that while blister bugs attack grasshoppers, they are also attracted to them. With the invasions I have had of grasshoppers in past years, I may have to work particularly hard to get rid of the blister beetles.

Always a problem on the old homestead isn’t there?  It certainly makes life interesting.

My Life with Johnson Grass

One Foot in the CityThere was a time when I had control of my garden. In the flower sections, flowers grew; in the vegetable beds, vegetables grew. The invasion of Johnson grass was under control and I was able to co-exist with this tyrant. Just for proof, I am including a photo within the blog.


Then there was the fire that consumed my farmhouse and left the grounds in ruin. For three summers, there was insufficient water to raise or save the garden and no protection for a human who wanted to. When the new farmhouse construction began last fall, the Johnson grass was eight feet tall and had overcome the entire garden, the pathways and portions of the grounds. It was so bad the guys on the construction crew took bets as to whether this gal could recover it.

I’m determined, but here are the facts.

• Johnson grass is a three handed monster. It spreads by seed, by roots, and by stealing the nutrients (and moisture) from other plants.
• Areas of disturbed soil are vulnerable, especially if control is not attempted.
• Hand control is not practical in large areas where infestation is heavy. Rhizomes beak into small pieces and if left in the ground, produce many plants. Large grass stems are difficult to pull and in attempting to do so, often inflict slices on the person attempting to do so.
• Mowing seems to keep the grass from growing tall and setting seeds but I’m sure the roots are there, waiting for a chance to grow.

The first thing I did was remove as much of the dried grass stems as possible so some action could be given to the new grass as it came up. This took days just to clear the vegetable beds, but was necessary to get an attack on the problem. I double dug the beds and sifted out the roots which after three years had formed huge knots of intertwined roots. I sprayed the new grass with Roundup and mowed the areas that could be reached by mower.

Then I repeated the above process many times over. It seemed each time I went inside to have a sandwich a new crop of grass had come up. As the garden and flowers came up, I found many specimen plants that had survived the three year neglect of fire, grasshoppers, drought, and Johnson grass. Now much of the grass had to be pulled or sprayed with a protective cover over plants.


Status report: Progress is being made but victory is still a ways off. I am determined to save my gardens even as the contractor’s boys drive by and up the bets. I AM going to win this battle.

At least the guys no longer come by and ask “How goes the war?” as they can see I’m making a little progress. Nevertheless, the war, as all wars do, seems to go on far too long.

PS: I was always told that extension agents had encouraged Kansas farmers to plant Johnson grass for cattle forage. In my research, I have found no evidence of this. In fact, the toxic nature of late season Johnson grass was identified early and it proved to be disliked by cattle with good alternatives. Instead, it probably came in as seed from other areas where it was used to control roadside erosion or was mixed in with seeds for pasture and waterways. I like my local agents, so I’m happy to let them off the hook.


Community Coalition Pitches for Increase in Local Food

One Foot in the CitySometimes a community can surprise me with unexpected efforts toward good and locally grown food. Ours is already strong in their efforts to support local farmers markets, which are open from very early spring to late fall and also include a once a month indoor market for eggs, meat, and other products as available. These markets are swamped with buyers at every opening.


Recently our Health and Wellness Coalition conducted a study to determine if even more locally grown food might be made available, and while the results of the study might not be as simple as presented, they are encouraging never-the-less.

Our community is in the middle of farmland in the center of Kansas. The study estimates that we grow 2 percent of our vegetables and a tenth of a percentage of fruit. If 5 percent could be produced locally, the study estimates $54 million could be kept within the county yearly, rather than buying from out-of-county resources. The health advantages are also clear.

Of course, there are many factors which influence the increase of fruit and vegetable growth. Water can be a very real problem, and recent years of drought put a challenge to the best of us. We are also challenged to raise more meat and dairy products, including pork, chicken, turkey, eggs, etc. But most small/self-sufficient farms that once included buildings for that purpose were let go when the industry turned to large feed lot production and the sales barns disappeared.


I am encouraged that the Coalition is mounting a community effort to develop a plan. Although garden-farming is hard work, there is a real joy in working with the land and producing not only enough food for a family, but also a community. We could do more if we worked together in co-ops or teams, especially in the processing and buying of crops such as nuts, fruits and grains organically. I would love to see the signs go up again that read “We buy Pecans.”

We aren’t a model city yet, but we have the potential of becoming one in the local and organic food arena. I hope you’ll watch for progress in the Wichita area as we continue to learn now to farm both within and outside our city.


Storm Shelter Is First Priority

One Foot in the CityRegrouping after a total loss takes a while, and it has been three years since my old farmhouse burned. The replacement is pretty overwhelming and there are so many issues to consider, I am just now breaking ground. I am excited to describe what I’ve chosen to build, but my first priority was to make absolutely sure there would be a storm shelter, something the old house lacked. I spent too many storms cowered in a closet.

Originally the farm had a “cave” built in the early 1930s. It served the primary purpose of food storage (potatoes, jars, eggs, etc.) with underground protection during storms. Like many “caves,” however, it began to collapse, became unsafe and was bulldozed. Also it had snakes, mice and bugs and I knew I wanted a better shelter.

Just Before the Storm 

I had learned of new shelter types recently and have a steel “safe-room” in my city house. As I began to research for an appropriate farm shelter, I considered,
  • A shelter that had a tested FEMA rating.

  • The location I wanted to place it.

  • Appropriate size and cost.

Time for Shelter

As I compared various shelters, I found some key differences. I decided a poured-in-place concrete reinforced steel shelter was overkill and subsequently reviewed forms of in-ground and above-ground shelters.

I rejected the in-ground units for two reasons: First, it didn’t seem to afford superior protection, and second, for older persons, access was more difficult, especially if confined to a walker or wheelchair.

I thought the above-ground units seemed appropriate, so once the FEMA test was satisfied, I still found some were constructed of lighter weight metal, some required significant “step-in” and others had poorly designed locks. Finally, there were differing installation designs.

Approaching Storm 

I settled on a unit from Protection Shelters, although similar products may be available under other brand names. This unit will install above ground in the garage by bolting through the concrete floor and will allow step-less entry. The company had other models including below-ground and safe-room designs, but one needs to consider their own unique needs.

Now that Priority No. 1 is handled, we’re moving on to building. The shelter will be installed 10 days after the garage concrete has cured.

I can’t wait to see the more fun stuff (like walls), but I’m sure glad I started with this.

The Saturday Afternoon Chicken Caper

One Foot in the CitySeveral years ago I brushed elbows at desks with professionally employed people who did more restaurant dining than home cooking. Representing the “new American woman” image, my female friends had been born into the metropolitan lifestyle and had little experience with raising animals or crops. It was only as the organic food movement and a true revival of sustainable lifestyles began to be known that I found more and more friends who considered themselves “urban farmers” or “urban homesteaders.”

Barbs girls 

While most of my friends now raise a bit of a garden, a few also have joined the “backyard chicken movement,” which reportedly is taking place across the United States. Although poultry raising was common in small towns of America a hundred years ago, it is gaining surprising popularity even in larger cities today. Evidence the “Tour de Coop” activities and backyard chicken cooperatives for the power of community brought about by raising a few chickens!

barbs chickens

Recently, my own experience with birds was called into action by my friends Barb and Van, who have been raising bantam chickens for a couple of years. Barb and I belong to the same quilt bee, which is made up of women with rural backgrounds and all have an enormous fondness for chickens. One day the conversation turned to the slaughter of chickens because Barb needed to cull some excess roosters from the flock. Turned out that although she and husband had learned much about the raising of the birds, they had never actually experienced the processing of the birds for meat. Enter this author for consulting and demonstration purposes.

After passing a few Kansas colder-than-heck Saturdays (thank you, God), we assembled last Saturday at 65 degrees for the process of removing said roosters from the flock. My prior arrangement with the owners was that I would gladly help with the butchering, however, I insisted, I would not participate in the killing of the birds. They agreed that they were willing to perform the act and had researched the “cone of death,” which supposedly made the killing more humane. Deal. I never did like that part.


As can be imagined, many memories were triggered and we had many good laughs and learning from the process. Here are some pictures and some observations brought forward:

  1. Chickens are fast little guys. Of course, on the farm we had a chicken hook, but lacking that we used the entrapment method. Anyone who knows chickens knows they were on to that method in no time. With the help of a chicken wire cage, we were finally successful. We felt both foolish and funny at the same time. Great laughs!

  2. Killing the bird is the worst. Although Van did have a hatchet as a back-up tool, they did use the cone method. I took a walk at this time.

  3. There is no other smell in the world quite like scalded chicken feathers. Eeeuuuu. We did a great job on this and it was much easier than my friends had been told.

  4. chickens complete

  5. Bantams are not fried chicken material. They are small and stringy. But then, Barb knew that and was going to make stock. They are considering getting a few normal “fryers.”

  6. It all comes back. Yep, it’s like they say; it’s just like riding a bicycle. Once we got the bird undressed, the rest was familiar. Add a reminder list of the order of processing and it went like a textbook example. It was done. We were proud of the accomplishment and felt we were urban farmerettes. Next time it will be easier.

  7. Culling those darn roosters was good for the coop. The hens were quieter and calmer, and the little hens that had been picked on were definitely happier.

Such is the life of the urban homesteader. I sure hope there isn’t a similar process necessary for their bees though. I think I’m at my limit for micro-surgery.

Quilts Find a Place On My Barn

One Foot in the CityLast summer I took a recreational drive through the beautiful Flint Hills of Kansas. My purpose was to find the many “barn-quilts” along the Kansas Flint Hills Quilt Trail. The beautiful Flint Hills cover more than one county, so such a trip takes a day and offers an opportunity for lunch and even dinner if you doddle. After being distracted by too many of my favorite places, I was only able to document this “Pioneer Star” barn-quilt at Pioneer Bluffs in Matfield Green.

Pioneer Bluffs 

This fall, a representative from the above Quilt Trail organization came to speak at the lunchtime lectures at our Botanical Garden. She brought along the photos of several of the quilts as well as 2-by-2-foot examples. Her purpose in speaking was to issue an invitation to join other counties as they organized their own Quilt Trails AND offered classes – Barn-quilts 101.

2 x 2  

My farm is in Cowley County and their class was already organized. I was able to get into the class, and in November created my first 2-by-2 barn-quilt. I thought regular quilting was addictive, but I was not prepared for the excitement I felt with this project. I signed up for another class for a larger size and produced a “Crown of Thorns” barn-quilt for the barn at my farm. What a wonderful way to introduce others to the farm that has been in my family for more than 100 years.

Crown of Thorns 

So what’s the point of the project? Of course a quilt trail promotes the art of quilting and its history, but it also draws visitors into the rural area and promotes some of the most beautiful areas of the state. It promotes agriculture and farming and showcases the efforts of our present farmers as well as our ancestors. Besides that, it allows a way to show pride in our farms and community.

Several of my friends have also taken the Barn-quilt 101 class and now have a quilt for their garden, front entry and garages. My hometown has an 8-by-8-foot one for the community building. There are signs going up at schools, public gardens and on businesses. Our church is going to offer a class and who knows, perhaps we’ll have a Lutheran trail.

It just goes to show that there is always a new project for those cold winter days when you can’t plant and you just have an itch to create. It’s what women have known for years – any day spent quilting is a good day.

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