Our Favorite Eco-Friendly Swaps for Earth Day

Happy Earth Day! On our homestead, one of our goals is to reduce waste and take good care of our land and animals in a way that is healthy for the ecosystem that we live in. To that end, we are moving toward renewable energy as much as we can, trying to buy less stuff, and continuing to eat a meat-free mostly plant-based diet. We are certainly far from perfect, but we try to keep striving to do better. 

I do think that it is important to remember that the idea of an individual carbon footprint was a marketing strategy to distract people from the damage done by big oil companies. To fight climate change, we have to hold companies and governments accountable for their role, vote accordingly, and keep the pressure on. I also subscribe to the Future Crunch newsletter to help with my climate anxiety. 

Nevertheless, we are not off the hook for reducing our own impacts as well. Here are some of our thoughts on reducing our impact this Earth Day. 

Don’t Fall for Greenwashing

Early this week, I started to get emails about Earth Day sales. Although I am not one to sniff at a coupon for a product I already use, the very idea that there is something “green” about a sale is kind of laughable. One of the biggest ways that we can live more sustainably is by buying less stuff

It reminded me of a struggle I had recently over a body wash we were using, but which I discovered had been “Green Washed.” Green Washing is when a company uses marketing smoke and mirrors to appear more eco-friendly than they really are. My complaints with the body wash in question were that it is produced by an “eco-friendly” company owned by Unilever, which tests on animals, and that it contains palm oil, a nearly ubiquitous ingredient linked to deforestation of tropical rainforests. Certainly, this product was “greener” than some other options, but in trying to find a body wash that did not include palm oil, I just ended up switching to vegan, palm-oil-free bar soap. That also meant no plastic bottles. I’ve been happy with the switch, but the experience was eye-opening. 

Fast Fashion, Worn Slow

The fast fashion industry is terrible for the environment and relies heavily on fossil fuels not only for production but also for shipping. The whole business has been built on releasing more and more styles in shorter and shorter seasons, and making clothes less durable so that they have to be replaced more frequently, making the cycle hard to break for the average consumer.  This rapid increase over the last century has been really bad for workers and the planet. 

One idea I’ve seen that I really like is “fast fashion worn slow.” The idea is to buy clothes that you need, or really love, but to buy much fewer (perhaps 75% fewer) garments overall and wear them for longer, moving away from the idea that you can’t repeat outfits, even for big events. It’s also important to take good care of the garments you have, washing them in cold water, and line-drying the less durable fabrics.  And thrifting helps too, of course.

IMG_20210803_081806030Become a St. Kateri Habitat

We are proud to be a St. Kateri Habitat. This program, run by the St. Kateri Conservation Center, encourages Catholics, Indigenous people, and “people of good will” to use the land they own (homes, businesses, schools, etc.) as healthy habitats for people and wildlife, with an emphasis on native plants and ecosystem services, as well as religious expression. Making your property a habitat is not as hard as you might think and it has been really rewarding to us, helping us think carefully about what we plant and how we care for our habitat. 

The Zero Market

923A24A3-ADA4-4668-951C-E8748D88216FIf you are local to Denver, check out The Zero Market (at Edgewater Market or Stanley Market). It is a good place to get products to replace single-use options, but it is best for buying household and beauty products in bulk, refilling your own containers to keep them out of the landfill. While not necessarily cheaper than buying soap, etc. in single-use packages, the quality of their refills is excellent, and you save those plastic containers. I take my own glass jars and get refills of hand soap, dish soap, air fresheners, tea, dental floss, and rosewater. Their rosewater is the best I’ve ever tried and I also really like the smell of their Sweetgrass room refresher spray. My mom loves their save soap. The Zero Market has a rewards program in which you earn a point for every container you save from a landfill, but they also regularly send out coupons, which helps with the cost/benefit equation. Recently, I was really excited to buy half of a shampoo bar from them for $3.50. I have wanted to try that switch for some time, but I have long hair and didn’t know if it would work for me, so the low investment was great. So far so good!

Compost

I am still struggling to get composting just right, but in the meantime, our food scraps are decomposing in two compost tumblers instead of releasing greenhouse gasses. Composting is an easy but impactful way to reduce waste in your home and there is a ton of information about how, why, and where to do it, as well as urban composting services (even in Denver) if you want to get started, but don’t want to manage the pile. Right now, I am a little compost obsessed, so if you want to talk about it, hit me up!

Reusable Cotton Rounds

D20466CD-D981-4377-8140-5EFB1D6C7702An easy low-waste switch is to use reusable cotton rounds. I bought my set off of Etsy years ago and they’re still going strong. Now, you can find them everywhere. I wash them in a lingerie bag that gets tossed in with my other laundry. I also got reusable nail polish removal pads from Zero Market and they were a game-changer. One side is slightly scrubby and so the nail polish comes off so much better than with disposable tissue. (Ella + Mila is my favorite cruelty-free brand of nail polish, by the way.)

No Paper Towels or Napkins

514D0020-9362-4A0D-AFB9-45BC9EE17FA3Back in 2018, I bought a couple of packs of cheap washcloths and have been using them, washing in hot water, and reusing them instead of paper towels since. Some of them are starting to get tattered, but I set them aside for really bad messes or for cleaning up things like paint. We also use cloth napkins instead of paper. Once (or twice, depending on the toddler) a week, I wash and dry them, which does use energy and water, but less than producing new paper products does. Back when we made this change, I was worried that it would be a heavy lift, but, even when we had a shared apartment laundry room, it was not a big deal, and folding the cloths and putting them away (we use a basket in the kitchen) is actually a meditative task for me. Between washes, we put the cloths in a bucket under the sink, out of the way. We do keep a roll of paper towels for emergencies such as dog barfs, but that’s it.

Bamboo Toilet Paper and Toothbrushes

FE00CFCD-2B79-457E-B2DA-DA18C4100D53We have a subscription to Who Gives A Crap and it lasts us a loooong time. We were set during the great 2020 toilet paper rush, too. 

We also switched to bamboo, biodegradable toothbrushes. A plastic toothbrush basically lives forever. I have one I reuse for cleaning tight spaces, but I don’t like the idea of our household putting at least 8 in a landfill each year. Not only do these babies take care of that issue, but they also look and feel chicer than a plastic toothbrush. I was even able to find some for our toddler. 

Biodegradable Floss 

In the same vein, I looked at the pile of floss building in our bathroom wastebasket and didn’t like it. At the Zero Market, I got us each a roll of biodegradable floss. They came in the cutest little glass vials with a screw-top lid that makes it easy to replace the roll when it runs out. This switch wasn’t as cheap as our old floss, but the biodegradable floss lasted longer than I thought it would, so I felt okay about it in the end. We ran out when I wasn’t planning a trip to the Zero Market soon, so I found a similar product at the grocery store. Reducing waste is getting easier and more popular! I still like the glass vial better though.

What are some of your favorite eco-friendly tips, product swaps, or resources? Let us know. Happy Earth Day! 

Alpaca Dryer Balls: How to Make Them and Why Use Them

Not all of the fleece that the alpacas grow is suitable to spin into yarn. When alpacas are sheared, typically three cuts are done. The first cut, the torso, is the best fleece, perfect for spinning. The second and third cuts include the legs, neck, and chest, and have a shorter staple length. Although this fleece can be spun, the shorter staple length makes it harder to do so. Even still, the fleece is soft, durable, and worth using for other projects. One such project is making felted dryer balls. 

Why Use a Dryer Ball

 A dryer ball is used for the same reason you might use a dryer sheet. The balls tumble around the dryer with your clothes and help wick moisture away from them, cutting drying time. While they do that, they also reduce static and help clothes come out of the dryer less wrinkly. 

Unlike dryer sheets, however, wool dryer balls can be used for years, eliminating the waste of a single-use sheet. If you like the fragrance of your dryer sheets, you can even add essential oils to wool dryer balls to give your clean laundry a pleasant aroma. 

How We Make Alpaca Wool Dryer Balls

IMG_20220416_122334_773 (1)First, we wash the fleece. For this batch of dryer balls, I used Theodora’s seconds. I washed the fleece twice until the water ran clean, then plucked any remaining hay out with tweezers. This batch of fleece was good for making felt balls because it started to matt as it dried. I suspect that the water got too hot while I was washing it. 

Next, I rolled balls from the fleece. Each ball is approximately 1 oz of fiber. Because Theodora naturally has some white spots and different shades of brown in her coat, I played with the colors so that there would be some variation on the outside of the balls. 

Once each ball was formed, I placed it into a nylon stocking, tying a knot between each ball. I was able to fit five dryer balls in each stocking leg, or three in a kneehigh. For pantyhose, I cut the pair in half, but later I used kneehighs, which was a bit easier.IMG_20220416_122338_358

Next came the felting process. I tossed my maternity overalls and a bit of detergent in the washing machine and ran the string of fiber balls through a hot cycle. I checked on them every few minutes to make sure the balls were not felting to the stocking, until the rinse cycle, at which point my top-loading washing machine lid locks. 

The hot cycle followed by a cold rinse cycle shocks the fibers, causing them to stick to each other. The once loose balls of fiber become hard balls that won’t fall apart in the dryer. After one wash, the balls were hard enough to remove from the stocking. At this point, I went over each ball again, plucking stray pieces of hay out with tweezers. (Before the next shearing, we are going to give our alpacas a good brushing so there will be less hay. Rookie mistake!)IMG_20220416_122346_759_2

I set the balls aside and, to save energy, gave them another felting once I had the next string of dryer balls ready to go. If you wanted, you could felt multiple strands of balls at the same time, but I imagine they would get quite tangled with each other. 

Alpaca Fiber Dryer Balls

I was mostly pleased with how the dryer balls turned out, although some are more oblong in shape than others. I plan to keep making them with leftover fiber. I think it will be neat to make some with scraps from various spinning projects so that they will have a wide variety of colors, but that’s a project for later. 

IMG_20220416_122949_159Alpaca Dryer Balls will be available at our market days for $15 for a set of three. Any balls that do not pass quality control will be available at a discounted $3/each. We think they’d make nice toys for your cats or dogs. Follow us on Instagram @solhomestead to stay up to date on Market Days this spring and summer. 

Lessons We Learned In Our Second Year

IMG_20211030_173737939_HDR

We are having an unseasonably warm autumn where we are, with temperatures still consistently in the upper 50s. We’ve even had some days in the 70s lately, which has been great for the bees and for giving us a little leeway as we break things down for the winter. 

As we work on winterizing the garden and the beehive, it has been natural to think about what we learned this year, primarily by making mistakes or making things harder on ourselves. So, here are the big lessons we’ve learned. 

IMG_20210825_135914620_HDRBrush the Alpacas Before Shearing Them

During the first week of June, our alpacas were sheared for the first time at our homestead. They were so ready for a haircut! Before we sent the prime cuts of their fleece to a fibermill to be spun into yarn, we had to skirt the fleece—that means picking out the hay, debris, and matts. I don’t know if you know this about alpacas, but they like to roll around in the dirt and hay. They were pretty dusty and dirty and skirting their fleece was a nightmare. Kasey is still working on getting their second and third cuts ready to spin and it is just so full of hay. 

We contacted our mentor to ask him if there was anything that we could do to keep them cleaner. Some really serious farms keep their alpacas in coats so that they can’t get hay, etc. stuck in their fleece, but that is too hardcore for us. And Moira is always hot enough as it is. We also knew that brushing them could destroy the structure of their fleece, which is meant to have a beautiful crimp to it. We visited our mentor during Alpaca Farm Days and he showed us a bucket full of different brushes that we could use before shearing. If we are shearing them to spin the fleece into yarn, it is okay for us to brush them then, because spinning destroys the crimp of the yarn. Of course! So, we hope that next year that will be less of an issue for us. 

Get Beekeeping Timing Right

IMG_20210616_134653790One of the biggest disappointments we had this year had to do with the beehive. Kasey keeps our bees and this is her first year. She got the bees on May 2nd and now wishes that she had immediately tested the bees for mites and treated them, but she was new and nervous about it and it took a few weeks to get used to working with them before she was ready to check for mites. She did so the third week of May and the mite count was really high. If she had understood her options better, she probably would have used Formic Pro, but she didn’t understand that the temperature restrictions were just for the first three days. Knowing that it would soon be really hot, she instead used Apivar, adding it May 25 and removing it on July 20th. 

Apivar cannot be used with the honey supers on, because the treatment creates residue in the honey and the wax that is not safe for human consumption. When the treatment was added, there were no supers on, but there were two deeps. It was a killer honey flow this year, though, and so supers were needed after a couple of weeks so that the bees didn’t run out of room. Long story short, they filled two medium honey supers with honey, none of which was safe for human consumption. It will get fed back to the bees, but by the time the treatment was done, the honey flow was over and summer dearth had set in. So many mistakes. 

Kasey feels pretty annoyed and let down by this mistake. She didn’t plan on harvesting honey this year, but with such a good season, it would have been nice to be able to harvest a couple of frames to give as Christmas gifts. Then, in late summer, she did use Formic Pro, and the queen ended up dying. More on that in another post. The most important thing is that the bees make it through the winter, but this was a steep learning curve and the mite treatment was the only part that was really frustrating.

Gardening Lessons 

IMG_20211009_152353403 (1)The garden grew SO. MUCH. BETTER. this year overall. We grew a delicious assortment of winter squash and pumpkins, patty pan squash, zucchini, greens, some tiny carrots, green beans. The Harvest Moon Squash was a variety we’d never tried before and it was delicious when stuffed and baked. 

But there’s still room for growth (pun intended). We realized that we want more room, so next year we are most likely building four more raised beds to create a natural buffer in front of the beehive and extend the garden’s footprint. 

We also learned that our watering strategy was insufficient. Although we got many, many squash and pumpkins, our Jack O’Lanterns and corn were puny and we think that was in part due to shifting too late from the type of watering we were doing to encourage the seedlings to grow to the deep watering that the plants needed to form fruit. We will also be watering the orchard more. 

IMG_20211009_114345683_HDRWhen we cleaned out the barn, it produced a giant mound of old, old horse manure. We were able to give a lot of it away for people to compost, but Kasey also used a lot to create a base layer for flowerbeds around the edge of the horse run. The plan was to grow wildflowers there to support pollinators. Her dream is to have lush perennial wildflower garden that takes not that much maintenance. She planted lavender, sunflowers, apache plume, Veronicas, and cone flowers there. The lavender was really the only thing that grew. Everything else scorched. She needs to test the soil, but it seems like the soil is too hot. The plan is to mulch it over the winter to draw out some of the nitrogen, but it was a good lesson in checking soil PH. 

There were so many lessons this year, but these were the biggest ones. What did you learn this year through trial and error? Let us know below. 

Our First Year on the Homestead

It is autumn and we have pulled up the last of our tired squash vines. The pots and garden tools are tucked away in the tack room and Julio is busy getting the barn ready for our herd of alpacas. 2020 has been a wild, difficult year in many respects, but here on Sol Homestead, we have so much to be thankful for. Our first year produced a puny harvest from the garden, but our family and our homestead still grew and we have a better idea of what we need to do to succeed next year.

Let’s recap.

Farmhouse Updates

Kasey’s library

We moved to the homestead in January after painting almost every room of the house. We also replaced the carpeting on the main level with Cali Vinyl Pro, which looks gorgeous. It is also the most eco-friendly version of faux hardwood we could find (we couldn’t spring for the real deal). The previous owners left behind several nice bookcases and Julio helped Kasey set them up as a library corner, which saved the work of doing builtins for the library. It is easily Kasey’s favorite space in the house.

In August, Julio tore down the shed. It was described as “serviceable” on the real estate listing, but Kasey thought “ramshackle” would have been more accurate. Over the summer we saw a skunk come and go from the shed and it seemed like just a matter of time before something made the shed its home. With a small dog on the property and no real use for the shed, it made more sense to tear it down and use the space to expand the garden.

Kasey the preggo wannabe farmer

Garden Trial and Error

During lockdown from COVID-19 in March and April, we started the garden. First, we tilled a 48’x4′ patch of land by our western fence and planted cold weather vegetables there. In late March, we planted five bareroot apple trees, two pear trees, two plum trees, and a peach tree. The late hard freeze that was so bad for Palisade peaches also killed our peach tree. One of our apple trees scorched, and one was smashed by a construction crew working on the edge of our land. They replaced it. Our other seven trees took well and hopefully will start bearing fruit in the next few years.

In May, we added four 4’x4′ raised garden beds, which Julio built. Kasey also planted some seeds in the containers that we used for a balcony garden at our apartment and placed them on the porch. The porch garden did the best, but we did not get much of a harvest this year. We got several zucchini, a few cherry tomatoes, and two small pumpkins. Our winter squash was taken out by frost before it reached maturity. Early in the season, the arugula got eaten by bugs and the spinach bolted. A lot of our other plants either never grew or got scorched during the seedling stage. From all of this, Kasey learned several good lessons. First, she needs to be more methodical in how she plants things. There were no neat rows in her garden. Second, she needs to be more dedicated to sprouting seeds and hardening them before transplanting them. With our short, intense growing season in Colorado, that work will go a long way. Third, our soil needs some help. This year was really about experimenting, so here is hoping that the lessons learned this year lead to a more fruitful 2021.

A Flood

In mid-July, the waterline into our dishwasher burst and flooded the kitchen. Water made it into the heating vent and ran downstairs into our guestroom, soaking into walls and the carpet. Thankfully, insurance is covering almost all of the repairs, but we have had to replace the carpet, the ceiling, and sections of drywall downstairs and the flooring on the main floor—that new flooring we put down when we moved in. It has been four months, but we are finally getting that flooring done. Water damage is a beast.

New Members of the Homestead

Dear Theodora

In August, we welcomed a new human member of the homestead—our baby daughter! We are looking forward to raising her in an environment where she will help with gardening and taking care of the animals. As a friend of Julio’s explained once, it is good for kids to grow up shoveling shit sometimes.

In early November, we purchased our small herd of alpacas from LaZyB Acres Alpacas. Our four girls have great genes and sweet personalities. We look forward to bringing them home in about a month, after we finish fixing up the inside of the barn.

Looking Ahead

Our plans for 2021 include a chicken coop and our first flock of laying hens, residing the barn, replacing the pasture’s fence, and revamping the garden. We are also going to have to figure out how to process the girls’ fleece. Most likely, in the first year, we will send 3/4 of the fleece out to be processed and do one blanket by hand to learn how to do it.

Our first pumpkin

After tinkering around this year, Kasey has decided that in the next season, she wants to focus on growing pumpkins and herbal tea for market and then puttering around with the rest as a kitchen garden. We plan to build four more raised beds, till some flowerbeds for wildflowers and the tea garden, and amp up the pumpkin patch with some more quality soil. We also want to keep developing the orchard. This winter, Kasey will be building a seed starting stand and doing some serious planning for the garden layout and succession planting schedule.

We are so excited about the fun and fluff that the animals will provide and the hard work that bringing these plans to fruition will demand. We hope to see you in the Fall of 2021 with a plentiful harvest. Fingers crossed.

Stay tuned for more information on the herd. We are excited to introduce you to the girls!

A before shot. Time to beautify!