Keeping us Honest on Energy

So, I’m digging Consumer Energy’s new “explore your usage” tools online.

If you’re in the Consumers area and you haven’t checked these out yet, you should! For the last few months they have been providing customers with some great comparison and analysis info on their usage, to help you save money and lower your carbon footprint.

It’s also great motivation to see:

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That’s right Consumers says we used 63% less energy than the average home and %12 less than the most energy-efficient homes within a mile radius. BOOSH!

And there’s also a tool that lets us see that we saved over $100 compared to our bill last November. 


There’s even a tool that lets you compare average temperatures, so you can calculate heating/cooling degrees into your comparison.

Of course, it also says we’re down from %15 less the previous month, which is really the point. Having a month-by-month comparison helps you set goals and plan to achieve them, and having a comparison to others helps you understand what goals are achievable.

Anyway, if you haven’t checked it out, log in online and look for:

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Super Fast, Cheap Garden Beds with no Special Imports

1 1/2 year old forest garden, nice tomatoes on 6-7 foot plants to the top left.

When we first moved into our home, a bit less than 2 years ago, we wanted to rapidly convert as much of our yard to garden as fast as we could, but being new to the area and broke from buying a house, we didn’t have many resources to work with.

Here’s one method we used to cover very large areas where it didn’t need to look neat right away, in this case, a 1/4 acre thicket of old-field with brambles, weed tree saplings, and bushes, honeysuckle, poke, burdock and ragweed.

Yeah, try tilling that, or maybe smothering it under a layer of cardboard!

We needed:
–low-labor as we were very busy,
–cheap, no special tools like a tiller.
–garden beds that would EVENTUALLY be water-saving, fertile, and low maintenance. 

We had:
–lots of bio-mass, sticks, leaves, weeds, etc.
–time for beds to gain fertility naturally
–other “intensive” garden beds for high productivity, so we were looking for a system that would prioritize “low maintenance” over productivity.

Here’s what worked for us:

(Very) Rough Mulch Garden Beds. 

OR, chop, drop and pile it up.  

This is a technique based on restoration work and studies of building soil by mimicking the “course woody debris” in a forest. Now, I wouldn’t recommend this for someplace close to the house where you need things to look neat right away. But in out of the way areas of unused farmland, bramble and old field, I think this could work well for you. Also, if you’re starting with a large area of lawn, this WOULD still work, but step one would be: “stop mowing your lawn and wait for a couple of years.” Compared to the work of plowing, digging or sheet mulching lawn, working with succession like this might still be quicker and easier for large areas! I might even try gathering a bunch of nuts and seeds from a rest stop or park and stomping them into the lawn as “sacrificial trees.”

1. Clear vegetation as low as possible. In a bramble or old field, you might be able to do this completely with hand clippers and a small hand saw, as I did. But we did have one maple that had died prior to us buying the house and a catalpa that was dying, probably from years of competition with the maple. So we removed the maple and cut the catalpa to regrow as a smaller tree (“coppicing.”) Don’t sweat getting weeds and trees cut as low as a conventional sheet mulch. Sure, weed trees and bushes shot through in the spring, but they were more help than hindrance, providing additional mulching materials and mass and tilling soil with their roots. Others, I have left to work their magic on the soil, I can cut them later with hand clippers.The important thing is that you expose plants you want to grow to more light.

2. Layout paths with your largest woody debris. Woody debris helps create a fungal soil that inhibits grass and builds loose soil that weeds and grasses pull out of easily. The large debris helps you visualize where your paths will be. Make garden beds 4-5 feet wide, so you can reach the middle from both sides.

3. If you want them to be water-wise, then lay the sticks PERPENDICULAR to the slope to slow down and infiltrate water. This method, called “PASSIVE SWALING” causes the sediment to fall out of the slowed water and where it slowly forms a swale without digging. Our beds are like giant “U” shapes, designed to catch water coming down hill.

4. (Optional) “Trench Compost” in a few relatively root-free spots where you can dig. Trench composting is just digging a 1-2 foot deep hole, building a compost pile in it and covering it back over. Just don’t bury too much woody material or you’ll bind up some nitrogen for a few years.

This part is really just voodoo, but it gives me a chance to inspect the soil and I theorize that it “kickstarts” soil life which will carry the nutrients out into the beds, and encourages roots to till the soil by providing nutrient stores for them to grow into.

5. Pile up the rest of your debris on beds using smaller sticks, weeds, leaves, any organic matter you can find. Lay the sticks and twigs in sort of “bundles” parallel to the stick borders as you gather them to create a more solid mass. The thicker, the better. Avoid placing large sticks in the spots you will directly plant, using smaller debris instead in these areas.

Bottom left, larger branches to frame the beds and suppress grass infiltration, smaller sticks, twigs, bramble canes, weeds, leaves, grass clippings, coffee grounds, and kitchen scraps fill in the beds. thickly to smother vegetation.

6. Start mowing the paths.  Now you could remove larger stumps or bush stools in the paths before you kill your lawnmower on them. But, not me, I’m lazy, so we planned our paths around them!  The key here is an area where we preferred to let nature and the land dictate the design of the garden, instead of imposing a design on it.
7. Plant into beds as you would with any sheet mulch: In spring, you can dig small holes in the mulch for plants, or make a pile of compost or soil in the mulch for a seed bed.

Finished beds, left, right and foreground

7. Maintain your beds with thick plantings and “chop and drop”mulching each year.
“Chop and drop” is just what it sounds like. Cut your crop and leave it to compost in place on the garden bed. Spot mulch any weedy areas or large grass patches with newspaper and some garden debris.

That’s it!

“No newspaper or weed barrier?” Nope. That takes lots of time… and newspaper I didn’t have. Yes, there are SOME weeds, but really, according to many sources on forest restoration, 6 inches of debris is going to kill most of your weeds. Check out the surface of a two year old bed:


Not too many weeds in there. Lots of room for plants to grow. And believe me, I didn’t weed!

“And hows productivity?” Better than no garden bed, which is what I’d have with any other method. And actually, it was pretty good, though I did no measuring. I got lots of healthy tomato plants, lots of tomatoes, dozens of squash, peppers, basil, etc, just off one of these beds. And the deer probably got more than we did. That’s pretty good considering I never dug, never watered, never weeded, and never fertilized.

And I know this bed will continue to grow in fertility for a long time as the wood slowly breaks down.

So there you have it. It might not be for every gardener or every situation, but it might be for that hunk of land you’ve been waiting for….

Recipe: Sunchoke Meringue Pancakes with Mutsu Apples

Shoveling all this snow the last few days has worked my hunger up, so I put down my shovel and went and pulled up a bunch of sunchokes!


This winter, like last, the ground remained relatively thawed underneath all the snow, allowing us to go and pull up some sunchokes (aka, “jerusalem artichokes,” a name mistakenly based on the Italian word for sunflower “giarasol” [like “jar of soul”]) Easy in good soil, you just grab a hold of a stalk and yank it up. You won’t get them all this way, but you’ll get enough.

For gardeners striving to increase their self-reliance, sunchokes kick ass: they’re the highest-calorie/square foot crop you can grow, they’re native, they’re perennial; low-maintenance; they’re light feeders; they’re drought resistant; they attract bees like crazy; they provide a quick-growing barrier as a wind-block or privacy hedge; they’re pest-resistant to deer, rabbits, etc;  they provide HUGE amounts of carbonaceous material for composting, mulching or sheet mulching; they keep well for months in a cool dark place; and you can store them in the ground and dig them in the middle of winter.

persimmon guild
Sunchokes flowering in our mixed hedgerow.

Meanwhile, in the kitchen they’re versatile and tasty.

These light, tasty pancakes use chokes to add a natural nutty sweetness, a wonderfully distinct aroma and a faint, nearly subconscious earthiness that makes them very fulfilling.

chokecake ingredients



Pancake Ingredients:

Dry ingredients:
1 1/2 cup flour (White wheat flour for now, we’ll discuss flour options later)

Up to 1 1/2 cup sun chokes
pinch salt
1 t baking soda

Wet ingredients:
4 eggs
<1 1/2 cup milk
1/2 T oil (or fragrant browned butter, if you’re into awesome things)
1t vanilla


Mutsu apples. Yep, that’s it. No sugars added in this recipe, but of course, these griddle cakes are good with syrup, too.

1. Mix dry ingredients in a large bowl. Start with white all-purpose flour, but adding some whole wheat flour improves the flavor.
2. Separate egg yolks. Put egg yolks into a blender and move the egg whites into a deep bowl.
3. Add another pinch of salt to the bowl, then whip egg whites to “soft peaks” stage.

Egg Whites
Adding salt helps them “firm up” faster.


Whipping the egg whites to the soft peaks stage adds a lightness that makes great pancakes, waffles, breads and muffins from a variety of unusual ingredients, from root starches to wild grasses and nut flours. It also allows you to add way more of these ingredients without getting gross “heavy” textured breads. 

4. Add the sunchokes, oil, vanilla, and “just enough” milk to allow you to blend the sunchokes to a smooth consistency. I don’t peel the chokes, but make sure you wash between the folds. This is the most important “tip” for working with chokes, since they have a tendency to smuggle grit into whatever you cook.

Blended Chokes
Blended choke mix should look like this.

5. Add sunchoke mix to dry ingredients and mix. At this point, add enough milk to get the right consistency for pancakes: The mix should be something that will smooth out into pancakes when they hit the pan. If the mix is too thick, you’ll kick all the air out of your egg whites when you try to add them to the mix.
6. “Fold” in egg whites. The idea is to add as much light air to the batter as possible.

See the bubbles? You want that.

7. Heat pan. The pan should be hot enough that butter or oil sizzles but doesn’t instantly brown. If it’s not hot enough to sizzle, your pancakes will stick to the pan. But not as hot as regular pancakes! If you rush it your flap jacks will come out gooey in the middle.
8. Mmmm Pancakes.

Mmmm... sizzle, sizzle
“Sizzle, sizzle, sizzle”

9. Cut Mutsu apple to chunks while your first pancake cooks. Heat up a second pan and add just a little butter or oil.
10. cook the apples.

Use enough heat (high) to put a little brown on ’em.

Essential Ingredient: Mutsu Apples

Like Brittain’s famous Bramley apple, the corner-stone of English apple dishes, the Mutsu apple cooks down instantly into a rich sauce. In addition, it’s the perfect combination of sweet and tart for a finished “sauce,” without adding anything. Well, ok, you can add cinnamon and clove, especially if you added whole wheat flour, but you don’t need to. By the time your pancakes are done, you’ll have your topping. 

11. Mmm…. Yeah, these were really awesome by the way.

Sunchoke griddlers!

Composting 101 and 401

Two videos on composting.

First, a hilarious speech and great advice about composting by Mike McGrath. Really, this video is everything you need to know to get started composting.

The main point: save your leaves, shred them and build your compost pile out of leaves alone (or mostly.) 

Like all good teaching, this isn’t “absolute truth,” it’s “corrective medicine” for folks who have been told to compost their kitchen waste without further thought or planning and likely end up with smelly piles of too much nitrogen, not enough carbon and bunches of bulk junk that just won’t break down in their cold pile.

We use several different composting methods depending on the time of the year–including vermicomposting–and we compost ALL of the scraps from our vegetarian kitchen. There isn’t a scrap that has survived a year of being run through our compost piles. But we build our piles in fairly specific amounts and ratios, so it CAN be done. But leaves and other carbonaceous materials, such as jerusalem artichoke stalks, make up the bulk of our piles.

Next is an advanced video on a composting system that integrates chickens. The results, grain-free, free-range chicken eggs and improved compost.

To watch the video you’ll have to give your email address to Permaculture Guru Geoff Lawton. So far, I can say that I’ve only been contacted by Geoff for new videos and he has not sold the address for my phoney email account that I only use to sign up for such stuff.

Welcome to Lillie House

Hello! Glad you found us and welcome to Lillie House.
This was all dying lawn two years ago.

Like so many people these days, we’re just trying to move towards healthier, happier, saner lives. At some point, we figured out that to move in that direction, we’d also have to live kinder, more responsible lives in closer touch with the natural systems that humans evolved in–systems that have nurtured us since that fateful day three and a half billion years ago when two organic compounds stared longingly at each other over a bowl of primordial soup.
The grocery store outside our front door

Speaking of soup, one of the first steps would be to reconnect with our food and begin taking responsibility for what and how we ate.
Is that some hippy-looking salad or what? Flowers?

We’re passionate about growing food in truly regenerative ways.
Young ecologically inspired “food forest” garden.

And when you try growing your own food, you soon discover that even more important and time-consuming than growing is the culinary “technology” and art that turns stuff you grew into stuff you actually want to eat. 

herb harvest
Processing and prepping food is hard work! We strive for as “quick and easy” as possible.

Along the path, we’ve been inspired by people who are foraging; doing “permaculture,” “french intensive gardening,” and other forms of “regenerative” food production; developing the cuisine of sustainable homesteading; restoring old homes; promoting urban renewal; saving our nation’s historical housing stock (with the vast embodied energy it represents;) applying appropriate technology; and building the “Transition” to more localized, regenerative communities with a higher quality of life.
Edible forest surrounded by city

If that’s the sort of thing that inspires you, too, then we hope you’ll check back in and say “hello” as we share our story and what we learn along the way.