This Month On The Homestead: Building A Woodshed And Picking Blackberries
August is a languid, rolling experience of heat and bounty so prolific it’s overwhelming. We wait all year for baking sun and endless veggies and then when it happens, it’s almost too much to bear.
There’s a temptation to run and hide from the mountains of chard and the opulence of tomatoes. But we pause, we remember that soon enough, it’ll all be gone, evaporated and enveloped by snow. And so we go again into the garden and into the woods to savor and work these fleeting summer hours.
If you’re just tuning in, this is a recurring series in which I document each month of our lives out here on our 66-acre Vermont homestead. After leaving urban Cambridge, MA in May 2016 to chart this wholly different life, we’re experiencing a constant learning curve of exploration (and plenty of stupid novice moments). Check out last month’s installment here and enjoy the best and worst (ok, mostly the worst) moments of our first year on the homestead here. Wondering if it’s less expensive to live rurally? Check out: City vs. Country: Which Is Cheaper? The Ultimate Cost Of Living Showdown.
Woodshed Building Extravaganza!
While some other things happened on the homestead in August, it was all dwarfed–quite literally–by Mr. Frugalwoods’ construction of a woodshed.
In the interest of transparency, I’ll concede that he didn’t actually finish the thing until September, but for the purposes of a lovely, flowing narrative (which is what really matters in woodshed construction… ), I’ll cover the entire operation in this August rundown.
We begin with an existential pondering: what is a woodshed? Why does one need such a thing? Where will it come from and where will it go?
Heating A Home With Wood From Our Land
We heat our home with a woodstove, which–as you’ve probably surmised by now–requires wood. We live on 66 acres of heavily forested land and so we have an over abundance of raw burning material at our disposal. Harvesting trees is an important element of maintaining a healthy forest and it’s necessary to clear out dead/dying/problematic trees anyway, so burning them to heat a home is doubly efficient.
Fortunately, we have a modern, highly efficient woodstove, which I discuss in detail here. Mr. Frugalwoods fells trees himself (using a chainsaw and all required chainsaw safety gear) and then skids the trees using our logging winch and tractor (read about that here) and then bucks and splits the wood for us to burn (more on that here). I’ve done quite a bit of writing about this exciting tree extraction process in the past, so check out past posts for all the details. And don’t operate a chainsaw without safety gear and training (both of which Mr. FW has)!
Given our reliance on wood to heat our home during icy Vermont winters, we need a place to store said wood prior to burning it. Strangely enough, our property lacked a woodshed. A previous owner built a lean-to woodshed on the far side of our barn, but it’s woefully inadequate for wood storage because: 1) it’s too small; 2) it doesn’t get direct sunlight; 3) it has no airflow from either side; 4) it isn’t close to the house. Other than that, it’s perfect! We initially considered keeping wood in our basement, but were advised by several neighbors that this is a great way to introduce bugs into our home (bugs live in wood and when the wood comes inside and warms up, out pop the buggies!). No thanks. Plus, our basement is fully utilized for storage. Additionally, keeping wood inside doesn’t allow it to fully dry and cure (more on that thrilling process later!). So that plan was flawed from the start.
How We’ve Been Storing Wood (spoiler: not well)
We landed on the non-ideal solution of storing our split firewood in rows atop pallets in our yard, covered with metal roofing panels. This works out okay, but isn’t optimal as we had piles of wood scattered around the yard, the metal roofing blows off (often), snow drifts up around the piles, the pallets start to rot due to ground moisture, and the piles fall down periodically (which, while funny to watch, is a royal pain to re-stack).
This system is also derelict at keeping rain off the piles. We didn’t want to rush into building a gargantuan woodshed if we could skate by with random piles of wood in the yard, but the aggravation and insufficiency of the piles prompted Mr. FW to take serious action. Most crucially, this system didn’t allow the wood to dry properly, which grievously impacts its ability to burn well.
Why Wood Needs To Dry Out (newsflash: you can’t use a towel)
Wood burns most efficiently when it has under 20% moisture content (oh the things I learned while writing this post! Can’t believe I could make it through a day before knowing this). Depending on the species of the wood, when you fell a tree, it’s going to have between 40% and 60% moisture content, which means if you were to burn it soon after cutting it down, the energy in the wood would be used largely to boil off the water instead of producing heat (which is your goal). Wet wood is also harder to start, harder to keep burning, and overall less efficient.
Given this, it’s important for wood to have time to dry out prior to being burned to heat a home. Any amount of time for wood to dry is better than no time, but longer is better. Many folks aim for at least one year of drying, which means they’d cut wood in the fall of 2018 to burn during the winter of 2019-2020. However, for some of the denser woods such as sugar maple and hop hornbeam (which we happen to have a lot of in our woods), a year is not quite enough to get it below 20% moisture content. And by “year,” I really mean summers because in our climate, wood is only truly drying from May to October. Thus, we’ve arrived at the conclusion that two years of drying should be ideal to get these denser woods up to their highest BTU potential.
The reason to burn denser woods is that they’re more efficient and burn hotter and longer. There’s more heat energy (BTUs) in a piece of hardwood (such as a maple) than in a piece of soft wood (such as a white pine). Here is a very handy chart outlining the BTU content of a lot of different types of wood. If you’d like to nerd out over BTUs and wood cord size, check this action out. I’ll be honest, I did not read that, but Mr. FW did and proceeded to give me a lengthy explanation… You’re welcome.
At any rate… how on earth do we know how much moisture content a given piece of firewood has? We lick it. Just kidding, we have this moisture meter that measures moisture content (that’s an affiliate link). However, once you’ve been doing it for awhile, you can tell by the way wood feels and sounds when you hit it against another piece of wood (that’s the technical explanation). For us, using the moisture meter was helpful in learning this calculation.
The sum of all this wood drying excitement: A properly sited and designed woodshed is instrumental in facilitating the proper drying and storing of wood.
Determining Woodshed Size (go big or go home)
The first data point was how big the thing should be, which entailed estimating how much wood we use per heating season. After two full winters of burning wood, Mr. FW deduced that we use about three cords of wood per year (more on what a cord of wood is here). Given this, Mr. FW decided he wanted a shed that would, in total, hold three years worth of wood, which is nine cords total.
He landed on a design of three bays whereby each bay holds one year’s worth of wood (which is three cords). Was that confusing? I re-wrote it six times in an effort to clarify, so hopefully it makes sense. Let me try again: The shed holds a total of nine cords of wood, which will last us three years. Each bay of the shed holds one year’s worth of wood, which is three cords. Just look at the photos of the shed.
Where Should A Woodshed Go?
Next, we had to decide where to put the woodshed. Since it’s a massive structure, we wanted a location that wouldn’t obstruct our view of the woods from the house. But, since this wood will eventually be burned inside the house, we wanted it close to the house. We also needed a spot that faces south(ish) to capitalize on sunshine, since sun is a great dryer-outer of wood (and other things). Additionally, we didn’t want to plop the shed over any ground that might one day be a garden bed or chicken coop or garage or other such device.
We initially considered placing it next to our barn, but realized that it wouldn’t get enough direct sunlight over there. We then moved onto a spot just outside our second garden gate, adjacent to the barn since it meets all of our site requirements and faces sunny southwest. The only downside of this location is that it’s on a slope, which entailed some crafty engineering on the part of our woodshed designer and builder (that’d be Mr. Frugalwoods).
Before breaking ground, we obtained a permit from the town, an important element of any construction project! Always permit first and build second! Mr. FW staked out the footprint of the building with wooden stakes and rope so that we could envision how it would look on the landscape. We walked around and considered it from all angles and decided it was perfect (or at least, good enough!).
Designing A Woodshed
Since Mr. FW had a specific size and layout in mind, and since he was contending with both rock ledge and a slope, he wasn’t able to use a pre-existing woodshed layout or design. He had to make it himself. After conducting extensive internet research (I feel like everything we do is preceded by those five words… ), he used Sketch Up (a free 3D design program) to model out the entire building.
He came up with a design that’s graded in order to accommodate the sloping land, which essentially means each bay is its own discrete module. Mr. FW also calculated roof overhangs, how the structure should rest, and of course, structural soundness (hey! It won’t fall down! We hope!).
Preparing the Site
To prepare the site for the build, Mr. FW first scraped the grass and topsoil off with the tractor. Next, he spread crushed stone to serve as a foundation to help roughly level the spot (although it’s still sloped). The idea is that this stone will provide a firm foundation for the structure because crushed stone packs down tightly.
Typically, you’d next dig down below the frost line; however, our frost line is more than five feet deep and there’s rock ledge below the surface… so, he used floating deck blocks as the foundation pillars. He then built what he terms “a typical pole building.” Can you tell why I’m the one to write this stuff up?
This woodshed is built of, uh, wood. Since we don’t (yet) own a saw mill, we’re not able to make our own lumber, so we had a load of lumber delivered. When buying this much lumber, it makes sense to have it delivered because, for us, it was the same price as it would’ve been had we picked it up, since our lumber yard delivers for free over a certain amount ordered. They were also able to set the lumber exactly where we wanted it with their boom truck, which Babywoods watched with extreme interest. This much lumber would’ve entailed at least five trips in our pick-up truck, so it much more efficient to have it delivered.
An important note here that anything within two feet of the ground is ground-contact pressure treated lumber (important for staving off rot!). The roof is galvanized metal roofing slats that are each 3 feet wide x 12 feet long. There are also a bunch of screws and nails, which are used to hold things together. I added that last sentence myself by drawing on my extensive construction expertise.
The full footprint of the woodshed is 8 feet x 24 feet and the roof is 12 feet x 28 feet, since there’s significant overhang to keep rain and snow off the wood. The height inside each bay ranges from 4.5 feet in the back to 7 feet in the front. I think this thing qualifies as more of a wood palace. The floor boards and the side slats are spaced wide to allow airflow, which is conducive to wood drying.
It took a lot of early mornings, late nights, and long weekend days, but Mr. FW built this thing all by his lonesome in about two and a half weeks. This does not, however, include the months he spent planning, designing, and researching. All told, it took a ton of time, but the result is a beautiful woodshed–for only the cost of the materials–that’ll serve our homestead for decades to come. Plus, as he said every single time he came inside after working on it–this is the type of manual labor that he loves doing.
Creating a vision on paper and then building it with his own hands is a deeply fulfilling, satisfying aspect of our lives out here. My husband loves to build things and loves to learn new skills and this woodshed certainly provided him with those opportunities. He debated roping friends in to help at various stages of the build–in particular with putting the roofing on–but he wanted to see if he could do it on his own. And he could. He reports that, with the proper amount of planning ahead, building of jigs, and using of clamps–it is possible to build something this large on your own.
For our local friends, he’s now interested in organizing a “woodsheds and whisky” tour whereby you go around town to look at each other’s woodsheds and drink whisky. Please call/email him to arrange (my work with this is now done).
See, I told you something other than a woodshed happened last month. Blackberries came ripe! We are the proud owners of a rollicking mess of wild blackberry bushes. Seriously, it’s a gigantic jumble of thorny vines in the woods that skirt our yard, but it is loaded, packed, and laden with delicious blackberries.
And so, like a mama bear and her cub, Babywoods and I set out every other day into this thicket armed with our empty yogurt container pails to pick and pick and pick. Or eat and eat and eat in the case of Babywoods, who managed to save exactly zero blackberries. That child is at least 60% berry at this point.
We trampled down pathways to navigate the thronging plants and learned where the biggest and juiciest berries grow. Thanks to the book Blueberries for Sal (props to my mom for getting that from a yard sale for us), Babywoods was ALL IN on the berry picking this year and spent a fair amount of time bushwhacking through vines with me in search of tasty treats (that’s an affiliate link).
I managed to not eat everything I picked and froze about four gallons of berries for the winter. I don’t bother making jam or jelly since we make apple butter from our apples. As I’ve shared before, I utilize the lazy method of dumping berries into a ziplock bag and tossing them into the freezer, a methodology that works just fine. I then defrost as needed and pop them into salads, much to the delight of anyone who eats salads at our house.
Dehydrated Cherry Tomatoes Are Delicious: Who Knew?
Everyone but me, apparently. THANK YOU to the following amazing Frugalwoods readers who suggested that I dehydrate our excess cherry tomatoes: Penny, Jess, Krysten, Natasha, Soggysuzzi, Beth, Kate… yep, basically everyone who read the post ;).
Really, guys, my farm incompetence knows no limits and I had no clue you could dehydrate these babies. But now I’m a devoted convert!!! I slice the cherry tomatoes in half, pop them into the dehydrator, and a quick 24 hours later, they’re dried! I’ve elected not to dehydrate my tomatoes all the way because I like them slightly mushy (plus I get impatient of running the dehydrator after 24 hours and want to take them out!).
Due to this, my tomatoes aren’t shelf stable, so I’m freezing them. But, if you were to dehydrate them all the way, they would be shelf stable. I am looking forward to feasting on these little sunshine rockets all winter long (well, actually, given how much Babywoods loves munching them, they’ll probably only last us a few months… going to plant more cherry tomatoes next year).
I like this system because it’s easy and requires very little labor by me, unlike canning, which requires quite a bit more timing and concentration (both of which are in short supply in our household of an infant and a toddler). Babywoods got into helping me put tomato halves on the dehydrator, by which I mean she got into eating all of the tomato halves she was supposed to be placing in the dehydrator…
Inquiring minds who want to know: I have this dehydrator, which we bought a few years ago in order to dehydrate our apples (that’s an affiliate link). But I gotta tell you, I love dehydrated tomatoes even more!!! This is not, to be clear, the world’s greatest dehydrator, but it works and it’s cheap.
Along those lines, many of you clarified that you CAN can salsa and I was confused for a few days until I realized that we were talking about different types of salsa. Mr. FW makes a fresh pico de gallo type of salsa that isn’t cooked and we’re not fans of the traditional jarred, cooked tomato salsas. So I think for now I’ll stick to dehydrating cherry tomatoes as a means of preservation and we’ll just enjoy fresh salsa when the garden sees fit to grow the ingredients. Thank you, readers! Keep those good/how-dumb-are-you-Mrs-FW suggestions coming!
Where Are The Wildlife Camera Pics???
This question was posed to me by my own mother and quite a few readers, which informed me that my grainy, black-and-white photos of wild creatures skittering away are, in fact, quite popular. Thank you for that.
These queries also prompted me to go get the chip from our wildlife camera so as to share said photos with you (that’s an affiliate link). What I discovered is that the camera was not turned on. So, uh, yeah. No photos this month, but I DID turn it on, so hopefully I can regale you with some deer legs or bear butts next month. See note re. my incompetence above.
Want More Fotos?!
While I only document homestead life once a month here on the blog, I post photos to Instagram (almost every day!) and updates to Facebook with much greater regularity! Join me there if you want more of our frugal woods.
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Onward to September, frugal comrades!
How was August on your own personal homestead?
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