This series has been on hiatus the last few months because I’ve struggled with what to write. I am not a real homesteader. At least, not in the sense that folks expect when they hear the word “homesteader.” It evokes an antebellum existence of no electricity or running water, of growing and raising all of one’s food, of an internet-less, canning jar-laden life.
I want to tell you about our month on our homestead, but I’m in a bind because I think you think I’m a much more competent homesteader than I am. In truth, I’m mediocre. Subpar. I don’t knit. I don’t make soap from scratch. I don’t weave the wool of my hand-shorn sheep on a loom I built from trees I harvested with an artisanal ax. I don’t even have any sheep. Or a loom. Or an artisanal ax.
But I love the 66 acres we live on and I love the mediocre homesteading I squeeze in. So here’s a new tack. Here’s me writing about not doing things, but loving these things, and wanting to share how different my life is now than it was four years ago when we lived in the city.
Starting Seeds: The First Step To Vegetable Goodness
I was about to tell you how much we’re harvesting from our vegetable garden right now, but then I realized I never told you about how we planted our garden. So I’ll back up.
We started most of our plants indoors last spring, which means we planted seeds into these seed starting trays coupled with this under tray to give them a fighting chance in our short Vermont summer growing season (these are affiliate links). In past years, we’ve had a haphazard system of seed trays resting upstairs in our guest bathroom and scattered throughout the kitchen on tables.
Since the goal of starting plants indoors is to keep them warm and alive, this scattershot approach didn’t work because:
1) It was difficult to get our seed starting grow lights the correct distance from the plants (too close and they’ll scorch; too far and they’re not effective). This despite several inventive lamp stands built by Mr. FW.
Note: we use these heat mats because some seeds (namely tomatoes and hot peppers) require warmer soil temperatures in order to germinate (these are affiliate links).
2) Our children are curious and attracted to everything in our home that isn’t a toy. Seed starting trays and lamps, apparently, are fertile territory for such interest. Two toddlers + trays full of dirt + unwieldy lights with cords = what could go possibly wrong?!? As I vacuum up dirt from inside our heating vents, I’ll tell you.
Given these twin challenges, Mr. FW designed and built a right proper seed starting tower/shelf (pictured above). I forgot to take a picture when all the racks were filled with seed trays, so this photo shows just one row filled. Fear not, we filled them all and had some stuff sitting on top. Sidenote: Mr. FW also built the pictured toddler tower of power.
The tower/shelf is huge and sized to fit in our kitchen’s breakfast nook (which we use for neither breakfasting nor nooking). With this contraption, our seed trays were lofted from inquisitive critters and received sunlight from three sides. Mr. FW outfitted the tower with hooks from which to hang lamps. Voila! We started seeds like pros. Substandard pros.
Storing The Seed Tower: An Odyssey
Remember how I said the seed tray tower was huge? And designed to perfectly fit in our breakfast nook? Turns out, these two attributes are where its size stops being a good thing. After we’d planted everything in the garden–and hence no longer needed the tower in our kitchen–we figured we’d pop it in the basement. Nope. The staircase down to the basement has a landing and the tower was too long and too tall to make the right angle turn.
No problem, we thought, as we carried the (heavy, awkward) tower out to our barn, for we have a barn with an upstairs dedicated to farm equipment seasonal storage. The barn stairs are a straight shot up with no turns. Excellent, we thought. However. These stairs had a railing, which impeded the tower. No problem! We didn’t like that railing anyway! Mr. FW sawzall-ed the railing off. Excellent, we thought! Nope. As further evidence of our non-pro status, the tower still didn’t fit up the stairs. We sat down on our (now railing-less barn stairs) to discuss options:
- We leave the tower in the kitchen year-round. We vetoed this because it blocks the sunlight, which we dearly love in the wintertime.
- We leave the tower outside somewhere. Mr. FW vetoed because the wood isn’t pressure-treated and so the tower would rot.
- We leave the tower on the main floor of the barn. Dual veto because we JUST cleaned out the barn and made space on that floor for all of Mr. FW’s woodworking equipment.
As we trudged back to the house, deflated, we passed Glamour Shed. I paused, I looked at Glamour Shed; she looked back at me, dolefully as only a shed can do. I sprinted back to the barn for a measuring tape. Sure enough, Glamour Shed is the perfect shelter for our seed starting tower and so in there it sits until next spring.
Finally, We Go To The Garden
That sorted, let me tell you what we planted this year:
- 144 tomato plants (a combo of cherry, saladette, paste, slicers, and a mystery seed packet)
- 40 hot pepper plants (early jalapeño and cayenne)
- 12 ground cherry plants
- 12 okra plants
- Lettuce leaf basil
- Lime basil
This year, we didn’t direct sow (plant seeds straight into the ground); we started everything indoors and made prodigious use of the seed tray tower.
We bought our seeds from The Sample Seed Shop and they had great germination rates and were cheap. The only downside is that some of the seeds (roughly 1-2 out of each packet) appear to be for the incorrect plant.
Not really a problem for us since we planted tons, but might be a problem if you’re trying to plant just a few of the exact same thing.
Not So Fast Because…
Prior to planting, one must prepare for planting. First, Mr. FW cut down all the vegetable plants still hanging around from last season. He didn’t pull them out because we’ve read it’s better to leave the roots in the ground and not disturb the soil. In theory, this approach should reduce the weed pressure. After pulling out last year’s plants, he flame weeded the entire garden bed using our infamous, and eponymous, flame weeder (that’s an affiliate link).
Over the next several weeks (this was back in May, by the way), he flame weeded (wed?) the garden weekly in order to incinerate each fresh flush of weeds. The reason for doing this is that it’s easier to flame weed when the weeds are small. Our weed pressure seems to be less than last year and the spots that’ve been gardened in the longest seems to be the least weedy. Overall, we’ve spent a lot less time weeding this year, so hopefully this trend of not tilling up our mounds and rows will yield ever-fewer weeds and weed-like things.
Now We Rake In Fresh Veggies and FEAST!!!
Not so fast. First, we have to harden off our bitty veggie starts by letting them have playdates on the back porch. Innocent indoor-started plants need time to acclimate to such treacherous things as wind, sunlight, and cooler air. After spending several mornings basking in the fresh air, we let the starts graduate to an overnight camp-out. Then, they’re ready to be planted into the earth.
After planting, we tend all through the summer in the hopes of maybe, possibly harvesting a few things come August.
If nothing else, gardening is a lesson on delayed gratification, patience, and a willingness to work hard on something that might get eaten by bugs and/or a groundhog (more on her/him in a moment).
Here’s what it takes to bring veggies to fruition:
Weeding: once the plants are in the ground, we revert to hand-weeding since flame-weeding would, uh, set our vegetables on fire.
Trellising: since we planted what most rational people would consider an absurd number of tomato plants (144, in case you forgot), we had to DIY our trellising as traditional round trellises would: 1) not fit in our rows; 2) cost about $1M for all of our plants. Mr. FW bought metal fence posts (they look like long metal stakes) and used sisal twine to train the plants up the twine, which connects to cross wires at the top and the bottom. This seems to work well to keep the tomatoes organized, upright, and with leaves-to-themselves.
Watering: for the most part, rain takes care of this. When we experience infrequent dry spells, Mr. FW pulls the hose down from its normal resting spot–next to the baby pool–and waters the plants.
The Frugalwoods Fruit Situation (FFS)
In addition to the aforementioned vegetables, we’re amassing something of a perennial fruit empire (if an empire can be small and prone to pests).
When we moved here, we inherited:
- Ten apple trees, which produce annually with a bumper crop every two years (or so it seems from our meager data set).
- Three plum trees, which Mr. FW resuscitated via pruning. They’re producing enough plums for us to eat a plum a day, but not enough for us to bother processing.
- Untold numbers of unruly, wild blackberries. I pick these and freeze them, which is the easiest way to process food.
- Several black raspberry bushes, which Kidwoods consumes straight off the vine.
In spring 2018, we created a berry-lovers paradise by planting:
- A bevy of blueberries (28 bushes to be exact)
- Three Saskatoon berry bushes (which have since died)
- Three honeyberry bushes
- Four cherry bushes
- Three black currant bushes
This year yielded our first harvest from these cultivated plants and we picked enough blueberries to allow toddlers to gorge themselves on fresh berries, make pancakes, and bake several loaves of blueberry bread (don’t ask me for the recipe, it didn’t turn out well.. I mean, we still ate it, but we complained about it).
Our blueberry bushes are hale, hearty, happy and mostly untrammeled by toddlers because they’re behind a fence. Yep, fences work for deer, bears, and small children. Don’t plant food without them. The Saskatoon berry bushes perished for an unknown reason, the honeyberry bushes produced about three honeyberries, and the black currants did swimmingly! We harvested enough currants to make currant jam (delicious), currant cordial (will be ready at Christmastime), and eat them raw (they taste awful).
Maintaining Our Fruity Paradise
In an effort to keep this stuff alive, we weed it, spray the fruit trees with organic clay surround, and–as noted–keep it behind fences.
Mr. FW really likes this weeder, which is designed to root out weeds with deep taproots (affiliate link). Just such a weed–Common Mallow–took up residence in our blueberry patch and we were having trouble digging it out until we bought that vicious-looking weeder.
It’s Not All Behind Fences: Learning The True Meaning Of ‘Turkey Trot’
However. Our entire yard is not fenced in, which means the apple and plum trees have to fend for themselves. The other day, I looked out the kitchen window and saw a phalanx–a battalion, really–of wild turkeys advancing on the apple trees. Without regard for personal safety or decorum, I bolted out the back door, grabbed a toy (foam) bat, and ran towards the flock scream-singing Flight Of The Valkyries.
And the turkeys? They stood their ground and stared at me with their beady bird eyes. I continued my sprint, gesticulating with the (again, foam) bat, while increasing the volume on my butchering of Flight Of The Valkyries. As I closed the distance between the wild things and me, I had a belated flash of panic:
- Do turkeys bite? If so, how hard?
- Will they rush me and flap their wings in my face?
- How much do I care about our apple trees right now?
- Why is the only bat I could find made out of foam?
- There are many of them; there is but one of me.
I hesitated; they sensed my weakness. I looked back at the house–my safe home where I could get on my computer and BUY apples–and that’s when I saw her. My three-year-old–armed with her magic wand–wearing undies, rain boots, and a hat, barreling down the hill after me, shrieking with delight.
Pumping her little legs, waving her wand, she was fearless in the face of our feathered foes. Fearless because she believes in the infallibility of Mama. Fearless because I had a… bat (which she’d been repeatedly told not to use as a hitting device). So we charged on.
Just as I started to consider whether or not I was willing to bump a bird with my (foam, toy) bat, the turkeys retreated. In their fashion–which is to say, slow, awkward, with a lot of unnecessary squawking–they scuttled into the woods and left the apples un-pecked. Kidwoods later told me that chasing turkeys was the best, most special part of her week. Child entertainment/education(?) and fruit protection rolled into one.
General Land Maintenance
Remind me not to go an entire season without writing one of the posts again… turns out, a lot happens over the summer. To keep up with our 66 acres of land, most of which is forest, Mr. FW:
- Graded our 3/4 mile-long dirt driveway, which is prone to deformation following rainstorms.
- Fixed a culvert on our driveway. Twice.
- A culvert is a large metal tube that goes under a driveway or road to allow water to flow underneath the driveway/road as opposed to on top of it. As you might’ve guessed, numbers 1 and 2 are related.
- Mowed the fields.
- We have a two-acre cleared area around our house that we mow in order to keep it from returning to forest. If land here is left to its own devices, it will grow trees. Lots of trees. Trees are awesome. We have hundreds of thousands (millions?) of trees on our property and we love them. We do not, however, want trees up in our gardens as they’ll deliver unwanted shade. To decrease the amount of grass/weeds that require mowing, we keep planting more fruits and vegetables.
- We have a cleared upper field that we like to keep mowed to prevent forest takeover. It’s really, really tough to clear forested land; since this parcel is already cleared, we aim to keep it that way.
- We have a cleared trail down to our pond that requires brush hogging in order to–you totally guessed it–prevent forest takeover.
Maintained the tractor.
- Our Kubota L4400 does yeoman’s work alongside Mr. FW. It’s the machine that tills the earth, boxblades the driveway, brush hogs the fields, carts the firewood, skids the logs, clears the snow. We’d be lost without this thing.
- Mr. FW takes judicious care of this machine and has it on a spreadsheet-monitored schedule of maintence that he performs himself. Since we last spoke, he took the snowblower off the tractor, lubed and oiled it for the next season, attached the boxblade (to grade the driveway), took the winter chains off the front tires (oiled them and hung them up in the barn), then he took off the boxblade and attached the brushhog (to mow the fields). Once the fields were mown, he took off the brush hog and attached the winch to skid the logs he fells for firewood.
Maple Syrup Clean-Up
We made maple syrup for the first time this past spring and so this summer, we cleaned up those supplies. Mr. FW pulled the taps out of the trees (it’s reportedly not good for trees to leave taps in all the time). We left the sap lines up, which should make it easy to reinsert the taps for next sugaring season.
Then, he cleaned out our evaporator (we have a Sapling from the Vermont Evaporator Company) and emptied what remained in our sap storage tank.
Stalking A Ground Hog
The observant, ever-present witness/spy to all these labors is our yard ground hog. This creature–previously referred to, unapologetically, as a furry football–seems to live underneath our picturesque, center pine tree.
This might be ok. This also might not be ok if he/she has tunneled underneath the tree and weakened its root system. This will definitely not be ok if the ground hog realizes that its next door neighbor is our prolific vegetable garden. Things appear to be in stasis at present, but I’ve got my (foam) bat at the ready should needs must.
After moving here, we decided to get solar panels mounted on our barn roof. My full write-up on the panels is here and I include a solar update in this series. This is the only way for me to remember that: a) I have solar; b) you all would like to be updated on it.
Summer is solar stock-up time and in June we generated 776 kWh, in July 907 kWh, and August raked in 861 kWh. For reference, in January our panels generated a paltry 70.4 kWh. Since our electric company offers net metering, we’re able to bank our summer sunshine for use in the wintertime, which keeps our electric bill low year-round, even when the sun isn’t shining.
This has been your solar production update. You’re welcome.
Want More Fotos?!
While I only document homestead life once a month (or less… ) 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–unlike most other things in my life–I actually have a pretty good track record.
If you’re craving more homestead pics, Instagram is your best bet.
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