Transition visits in October. We’re caught balancing between two extremes, tentative and uncertain, unable to find sure footing in either fall or winter. There’s a riot of color on every leaf and the trees look fake with saturation. The oranges and reds and yellows all cluster around, pushing into our faces, swarming at our feet, demanding we notice their brilliance.
And then, it snowed. A demure snow, doing a trial run to see how the earth feels underneath each timid flake. Everything goes white for a few hours as the snow appraises its position and considers how it might lunge and drift as winter intensifies its strength. But it’s not time for that yet. By afternoon, most of the snow recedes, pushed out by a boisterous late fall sun, determined to demonstrate that this snow was precocious.
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.
That premature snow turned our minds toward winter and our winter prep list became pressing. Each seasonal shift comes with a string of transitional tasks that need to be done before the homestead is ready to cope with the next band of weather. October is the month we waffle between hanging onto the withering fall and embracing the sedate cold of November.
If we make our winter transitions too soon, we’re liable to be in a house that’s too hot (if we’ve removed all the window screens) and driving a car with unnecessary snow tires (which reduce gas mileage). But if we wait too long, we find ourselves mincing through snow to load up the wood box and unable to drive one of our cars. So, we play this game of chicken every year and try to accurately time our glide into winter.
Here’s our complete winter prep list:
- Harvest and process any remaining vegetables from the garden
- Prep the garden for winter
- Do a final mow of the grass
- Do a final brushhogging of the fields
- Do a final clearing of the hiking trails to prepare them for snowshoeing. Remove downed trees.
- Take all the screens off of the house windows/doors and put on the exterior storm glass
- Remove all patio furniture, toys, baby pool, grill, etc from the back porch and set up the porch wood rack
- Stack wood in the porch wood rack
- Clean the woodstove combustor and clear old ashes from the stove to prepare for burning season
- Order propane and heating oil to be delivered
- Fell and winch enough trees to put up another few cords of firewood
- Remove the winch from the tractor and put the snow blower on
- Change and refresh all fluids on the tractor
- Rig up a lighting system on the tractor for wintertime snow blowing
- Put the snow tires on the cars
- Put away summer clothes and excavate winter gear from the basement for all four of us. Bribe Babywoods and Littlewoods to try on various pairs of boots, snowpants, coats, mittens, and hats until we find the combination of hand-me-downs that’ll fit for this winter.
- Decorate the house for Halloween and Thanksgiving!!!!
I guess there is a lot that we do before each season… I’ve never written it all out before because we perform these tasks over the course of September, October, and November; but October is the bubble of activity and the month that accelerates our progress. We seem to get that harbinger snow every October, which always propels us down this list. We’re not quite done with all these tasks yet–and some I wrote about last month–but I’ll detail a few highlights.
Wood On The Move
Mr. FW is forever doing something with wood. He’s either in the woods with a chainsaw felling trees or bucking logs or splitting logs or stacking wood or building something out of wood or putting wood into the woodstove to burn. The man loves wood and has a kinship with our forest. It’s one of the reasons we moved here and I’m always happy when I see him outside doing something with wood because I know he’s content and fulfilled on a deep level.
We recently had a conversation about this relationship with wood and agreed there’s a primal association of comfort with wood, and specifically with burning wood. Without sounding too ridiculous, we both feel a sense of calm and security when we see our stacked firewood and when we burn the wood in our stove to warm our home. Babywoods adores the woodstove and loves to camp out next to it, reading books and playing. She relocates toys in order to play as close to the emanating warmth as possible.
This evokes the Danish word hygge, which is somewhat untranslatable (Danish readers, please chime in!), but my understanding is that it essentially means a coziness that stems from being warm and snuggly indoors while it is cold outside. Hygge certainly gets at the essence of what we feel with our full woodshed and our burning woodstove, but I posit there’s also an elemental level of human security that derives from knowing you won’t freeze during the winter.
The Woodshed and the Porch Wood Rack
The woodshed Mr. FW built this summer is filling right up! Two of the three bays are now full (woot!!!), which equals six cords of wood (wondering what a cord is? check this out). The third bay is still empty, but Mr. FW is pretty sure he felled and skidded enough logs to fill it up before winter. He just needs some time to get out there and split and stack!
If you’re wondering what felling and skidding are, fear not, for I covered those terms in detail here.
In addition to the six cords out in the woodshed, we have another 1.5 cords in our woodrack (also built by Mr. FW) on our porch. This is our oldest, driest wood and it’s what we’ll burn first in our stove.
Conveniently, we have a set of French doors next to the woodstove that open onto the porch. A few years ago, Mr. FW affixed wheels to the bottom of our woodbox (which we found in our barn!) so that he can roll the woodbox onto the porch through the French doors, load it up with the wood from the porch wood rack, and then roll it back inside and park it next to the stove. Wood moving made easy! The wheels were an idea from one of our neighbors and we heartily followed his advice.
We burn approximately 3 cords of wood per winter (since we heat our home primarily via our woodstove) and so we’ll need to refill the porch wood rack once during the winter. For that maneuver, Mr. FW uses the tractor bucket to ferry wood from the woodshed onto the porch and then stacks it up on the porch rack. He’s considering building another porch wood rack to eliminate the need to make this mid-winter restocking trip, but he hasn’t had time yet. More to the point, we’re not exactly sure how much weight the porch can bear. Mr. FW wants to inspect the porch’s foundation before putting more than 1.5 cords of wood on it. So, TBD on that project.
First Fire Of The Season
You won’t be surprised to hear that the first woodstove fire of the season is a cause for celebration. Appropriately, our first fire was on October 1st and we’ve been burning 1-2 fires per day fairly consistently since then. There’s been the odd warm day when we skip making a fire, but by the end of the month we were into regular burning.
We never want to start burning before we truly need to because we don’t want to run out of wood mid-winter (unlikely to happen now that we have a multi-year stash), but not a situation you want to find yourself in.
Mr. FW cleans our stove combustor every year, but he’s thinking we might need a new one in order to increase the stove’s efficiency. We are burning drier wood this year, which combustors like, but we’re thinking we might buy one just to have it on hand in the event of this combustor’s demise.
A combustor is similar to a catalytic converter in a car. It uses a screen made of rare metals to act as a catalyst for the smoke that passes through it. This causes the smoke to burn. Thus, instead of just burning wood, the combustor also burns the smoke, which makes our stove (we have the Fireview model from the Woodstock Soapstone Company) much more efficient than a stove without a combustor or other method of burning the smoke.
While the tractor gets used year-round, one of its primary utilities is as our winter snow blower. Mr. FW clears our quarter-mile (hilly) driveway himself, which means the tractor needs to be in peak condition. In preparation for this winter routine, Mr. FW changed the tractor’s oil, oil filter, fuel filter, air filter, and also greased it.
After discovering that clearing snow in the dark via headlamp is not ideal, Mr. FW designed and installed a lighting system on the tractor. He bought these LED lights, which he mounted on the front and back of the ROPS to enable him to see while clearing snow in early morning and evening. He also mounted a light switch on the dashboard and used a relay, appropriately fused. This should make in-the-dark snow clearing an easier and safer task.
Final Garden Harvest
The day before our first hard frost was predicted, I jetted out to the vegetable garden to salvage any remaining plants. I brought in a MOUNTAIN of tomatoes–some ripe, some green–along with the final hot peppers. My plan was to do a final batch of sliced cherry tomatoes in the dehydrator–I love how those dehydrated tomatoes taste!–and lay the rest out to ripen indoors (thank you to Frugalwoods readers for introducing me to dehydrated tomatoes!!!!).
However. This did not happen. It’s with no small amount of embarrassment that I confess they all rotted due to negligence. I had at least a hundred tomatoes nestled in my “harvest wagon” (a kids’ wagon I got for $1 at a garage sale) in the corner of the kitchen. Every few days, I’d pass them on my way to a crying child or dinging washing machine or ringing phone and think, “oh! the tomatoes! I need to get on those!”
And then they’d be forgotten again. Relegated to their lowly spot on the floor, easily overlooked by we adults. When I finally summoned the time to kneel down next to this forlorn wagon, I knew the truth before lifting a single vine. Mold and rot crept up to claim each fruit. And so, Babywoods and I rolled the wagon out to the compost pile and dumped them in–every last tomato–destined to become part of next year’s garden. Whoops.
This is the sort of error that would’ve eaten me up during our first year on the homestead. I would’ve maligned all the time I spent harvesting the tomatoes and then been furious with myself for not processing them in time. But now? After almost three years on the homestead, and countless mistakes like this one, I can laugh at how much we try to do and fail to do. I have perspective on the prioritization that prevented me from getting to these tomatoes in time. As our responsibilities have expanded–through our two children and our acreage and our work–we’ve both become adept at the art of letting go. There’s no way we can complete all the ideas, tasks, and daily to-do’s–let alone our grander plans–so we’ve become comfortable accepting our limitations. I go to bed on time. I play with my kids. I hang out with my husband every night. Sometimes, some tomatoes rot. I can finally say that I’m okay with that.
We weren’t the only ones prepping for winter this month and, while every October we are witness to ridiculous animal antics, this year is–to date–taking the proverbial cake. In a big way.
First, let me tell you about the bears. A little bear family–a mama and three cubs–found the old apple trees ringing our yard and decided to do some paws-on investigation. Thanks to our extensive rear-facing window situation, we watched their travails from inside. Mr. FW went out onto the balcony off our master bedroom (which I should note neither of us has even been on before–I have no idea what you’re supposed to do with it) and took a few excellent videos of the cubs taking turns scaling an apple tree and romping around in the woods. I posted the best video to Instagram and you can watch it right here.
Next up were the turkeys. This is not the first time I’ve written about the, ahem, intellectual challenges of these birds. I mean seriously, I can see why they’re the traditional Thanksgiving feast–you could catch one with your bare hands in our yard. And yes, they can fly, but they forget this fact in moments of distress and danger, which seems like an evolutionary missed opporunity if you ask me…
So you know the blueberry patch we now have? Mr. FW planted it this summer and it contains 28 blueberry bushes, three Saskatoon berry bushes, three honeyberry bushes, and three currant bushes, enclosed by a five foot high wire fence. A flock of turkeys flew in, which is fine, but after awhile we thought they might munch the plants, so Mr. FW went outside to flush them out of the enclosure. Now, being winged birds, you’d assume they’d just, ya know, fly on out, right? And to be fair to the species, some of them did just that.
However. A contingent of the flock tried to RUN out of the enclosure. Repeatedly. I was certain we would have a turkey-stuck-in-the-fence situation on our hands. They kept ramming into the fence at full speed and looking bewildered that they’d once again rebounded back into the patch. Finally (this was after at least several minutes), they recalled their ability to fly and took flight (also an awkward proposal, but one that was effective).
My only life regret of late is that I didn’t get a video of this frenetic turkey activity. I also must share that the children’s book, Gobble Gobble Crash, is one of the more accurate renderings I’ve read of turkey’s propensity for flailing around like, well, bird-morons (that’s an affiliate link).
Finally, there was the deer. A lone deer managed to get trapped in the blueberry patch (I will note there wasn’t a single animal issue in this patch until this month) and made a much more graceful exit than the turkeys. In case anyone is wondering, a deer can easily leap over a five foot high fence without a running start. It was gorgeous to watch and also inspired a conversation about how we perhaps should’ve built a higher fence… interestingly, no creatures scaled the five foot fence (same type of fence, also built by Mr. FW) around our vegetable garden, which actually contained edibles. The blueberry patch, on the other hand, is nothing but berry-less baby berry plants.
Now that I’ve FINALLY (it only took me a year… ) written up the background information on our solar panels, I think I’ll try and include a solar update every month in this series. That’s probably the best way for me to actually remember to update you… So, in October, we only had six days of true solar production! Whoa. It was a rainy, cloudy month, which is why it’s key that we’re able to bank credits during the summer. We produced just 305 kWh in October.
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. Some folks have asked about this and yes, I do try to post a picture to Instagram every day and have a pretty good track record, so if you’re craving more homestead pics, Instagram is your best bet.
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Onward to November, frugal comrades!