This Month On The Homestead: A Full Woodshed, Evolving as Gardeners, Plus a Pumpkin
As you saw in our expense report, September turned us away from summer, pushed us into fall, and forced us to reckon with the inevitability of winter.
We started the month with monochromatic green and ended in a riot of leaf colors. September makes us hustle. Dropping temperatures rob us of our languid summertime pace and Mr. Frugalwoods and I rushed from garden to kitchen to firewood, each task feeling immediate and necessary and unable to be put off.
There’s much to do before the snow flies, so we’re content to accelerate our days. We know that once we’re blanketed in white, there’ll be nothing left to do outside (other than, ya know, clear mountains of snow).
Welcome to my 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 here. Wondering if it’s less expensive to live rurally? Check out: City vs. Country: Which Is Cheaper? The Ultimate Cost Of Living Showdown.
Vegetable Garden Harvest Time: Learning As We Go
Since you gamely slogged through last month’s rundown of how we started, planted and maintained our vegetable garden, I will reward you with tales of the glorious harvest. Glorious might be an overstatement, but we’re pretty pleased with ourselves.
Every year we live here–this’ll be our fourth–we learn more and we do more:
- Part of it is that we gain experience with each season
- Part of it is that my husband and I have embraced that a to-do list is never done on a homestead (and I do mean NEVER)
- Part of it is that our kids are older and able to entertain themselves outside while we work (I mean, sort of… this one is a work in progress)
- Part of it is that we’ve refined our labors to focus on our highest priorities
This last point is especially salient in relation to our vegetable garden. We’ve grown quite a few different things over the years and each year, we’ve planted different things, preserved different things, and grown as gardeners.
The Evolution of Our Gardening from 2016 to 2019
In our first garden season, right after moving here in May 2016, we focused on stuff we could harvest and eat right away. We planted tomatoes, basil, oregano, rosemary, sage, peppers, spinach, arugula, mesclun mix, brussels sprouts, and squash.
Most of it died because it was planted late and also because we had no idea what we were doing. That might’ve had something to do with it. The rest came ripe all at the same time and we were faced with oversupply. We weren’t yet literate in canning and preserving, so a lot of these veggies were given away or composted.
Another crucial failure that first summer: allocating our efforts out of alignment with our priorities.
For example, I spent untold hours harvesting and weeding the rhubarb and then didn’t know what to do with the harvested stalks. I made pies, compote, and froze chopped rhubarb, but I did all this essentially in vain since, as it turns out, Mr. FW and I don’t love how the compote tastes and you can only eat so many pies. Based on that lesson, I didn’t even bother to harvest the rhubarb last year or this year. It’s a perennial, so it’ll chug along in the garden without my ministrations and I don’t feel a mandate to do anything with it.
Older and ever-so-slightly wiser, we tilled a new garden patch near our lower field to eliminate some of our lawn grass and create a larger, dedicated growing space.
We took a scattershot approach and planted: kale, chard, tomatoes, bush and pole beans, cucumbers, arugula, asparagus, dill, cilantro, rosemary, sage, thyme, hot peppers, and sugar pumpkins. This was essentially a “throw it against the wall and see what sticks” methodology to determine what’s reasonable to grow in our soil and climate (we’re in plant hardiness zone 4 for you gardening aficionados).
Here’s what we did with that bounty:
- We tried canning for the first time and made pickles from the cucumbers, which were delicious!
- We also pickled the beans, which were not so delicious.
- There weren’t enough tomatoes or hot peppers for preservation, so we just ate those as they ripened.
- We cooked the sugar pumpkins in a stew and they tasted awful. Certifiably terrible.
- The kale and chard both performed well and we ate them in stir fries all summer as they came ripe. There wasn’t enough surplus for preservation.
Feeling more confident after the relative successes of 2017, we decided to double down on the veggies that performed well the previous year: kale, chard, cherry tomatoes, and cucumbers. “Doubled down” does not encapsulate what we did–tripled or quadrupled down is more apt. We had the mentality that if some kale was nice, 80 kale plants would be even better! Wrong.
We were waaaaaaay too successful in our growing that season and had:
- Rivers of kale and chard. We could’ve built houses entirely from kale and woven cloaks from chard for everyone in our town. It was an avalanche of greens.
- Roughly 8,907 cucumbers, which we harvested and made into 75 quarts of pickles (that’s not an exaggeration, we actually made seventy-five quarts of pickles). What were we thinking?!?
- Snap peas: these mostly died, but we ate what lived when it came ripe. There weren’t enough to preserve.
- Ground cherries: we were happily eating these as they ripened until a squirrel cottoned onto our plans and ate every last ground cherry.
- Cherry tomatoes: we didn’t plant enough. We consumed them fresh off the vine and I dehydrated some, but we wished we had more.
2018 was a case of oversupply, which taught us to:
- Plant and grow things that are manageable to harvest and preserve
- Only preserve our annual consumption of each vegetable (i.e. 75 quarts of pickles is overkill)
The primary issue: kale and chard are massively time-consuming to harvest, wash, blanch, and freeze. It became a Sisyphean task to keep up with these plants and, ultimately, we gave up. We also made kimchi from the chard and kale, which Mr. FW dubbed Kimchardashian (you’re welcome) and pickled the chard stems, which I do NOT recommend from the perspective that they tasted horrible.
Entire days were lost to harvesting and preserving these greens because kale and chard have a very short shelf life. We couldn’t harvest and then preserve another day–it all had to happen on the same day, which is exhausting when you’re doing everything with at least one kid strapped to your back and another kid underfoot munching kale leaves.
We gave away a lot of kale, chard, and cucumbers to our friends and neighbors, but still, a surplus remained.
The cucumbers weren’t as challenging since they’re much easier to harvest, wash, and pickle. But we WAY overdid it on the pickles. While we use some jars for gifts every year, we do not need 75 jars of pickles annually. A hard lesson to learn a hard way. I gave away a bunch of pickles this fall and the remainder (34 jars) will serve as our supply for this winter.
Given our experience in 2018, you can guess which three things we did not plant this year: kale, chard, and cucumbers. We might do pickles again next summer, but I’m not sure we’ll be recovered enough to try kale and chard again… ever. Wanting to hone in on stuff that’s easier to harvest, process, and that we’re likely to consume, the theme of this year’s garden was: tomatoes!
2019 = A Focus On Food Preservation
We’ve discovered we’re most interested in growing veggies that lend themselves to quick and efficient longterm preservation. While we do eat some of the bounty immediately, we want to maximize the garden’s annual production by preserving it to see us through the winter. The growing season in Vermont (without a green house) is too short to supply year-round garden-to-table vegetable dreams.
We harvested everything remaining in the garden prior to our first hard freeze on October 8th, so the gardening season is officially over. We were able to keep everything going until this hard freeze by draping the plants in blankets and sheets during a frost that rolled through in late September. We cloaked our tomato plants in comforters and blankets.
Using clothes pins we made fitted sheets fit over basil. And for the hot pepper plants? Pillowcases, of course. Each one a testament to how full our linen closet is and how deranged we are to garden in this cold, cold climate.
At one point during the plant-cloaking, we lost track of Littlewoods and found her nesting underneath a sheet, munching on cherry tomatoes. Kidwoods was our clothes pin monitor and managed to clothes pin herself to a sheet and onto a basil leaf. The next morning we found frost atop these covers and the plants were a-ok.
This year’s garden roll call:
- Number of plants: 144 (a combo of cherry, saladette, paste, slicers, and a mystery seed packet)
- Growing results: they did awesome, given our conditions. The challenge is that our summers aren’t terribly hot and the tomatoes would clearly benefit from a longer growing season and warmer temperatures.
- Harvest rating: super easy to harvest and they don’t need to be processed right away. They can sit on the counter until we have a chance to get to them. Plus, they can be harvested before they’re fully ripe and then ripened on the counter or inside paper bags. This is excellent as it allows us mete out the preservation work over time and not condense it into one frenzied day. We currently have a ton of partially-ripe tomatoes in our kitchen that were harvested prior to the hard freeze.
- Preservation: A+ (so far). I’m dehydrating all of the cherry tomatoes (in my dehydrator) and Mr. FW is making and canning tomato sauce from the bigger pastes and slicers. All in all, it seems like this wasn’t too many tomato plants for us to keep up with. I’ll do a final assessment after we’ve finished preserving the still-ripening tomatoes.
- Number of plants: 40 (a combination of early jalapeño and cayenne)
- Growing results: they did very well but, much like the tomatoes, would benefit from a longer growing season and warmer temperatures.
- Harvest rating: super easy to harvest and they don’t need to be processed right away. They can sit on the counter until we have a chance to get to them.
- Preservation: TBD. Mr. FW plans to make and can hot sauce, so we’ll see how that pans out. At present, there are heaps of peppers on our kitchen countertop. Yum.
- Number of plants: 12
- Growing results: excellent; they produced abundantly.
- Harvest rating: decent to harvest, but a bit time-consuming as you have to lift up the leaves of each plant and search around for the ripe cherries (helpfully, they fall off the plant when they’re ripe). A real benefit of the ground cherries is that the kids can help harvest them.
- Preservation: nil, we ate them fresh as they came ripe. The kids love them and they seem to have a fairly long shelf life. If anyone has any ground cherry preservation ideas, please let me know in the comments!
- Number of plants: 12
- Growing results: sub-par. Okra do not appear to like Vermont. We harvested a few ripe pods, but overall, they bombed.
- Harvest rating: easy to harvest.
- Preservation: currently in our freezer. Mr. FW will defrost and cook them at some point.
Lettuce Leaf Basil:
- Number of plants: lots.
- Growing results: fabulous! We’ve been trying to grow basil every year and we finally hit the jackpot. This lettuce leaf basil did excellently.
- Harvest rating: easy.
- Preservation: nil; we ate it fresh atop just about everything all summer. We discussed making pesto, but never got around to it… Maybe next year!
- Number of plants: lots.
- Growing results: ok. It didn’t do as well as the lettuce leaf basil. It smells lime-like but doesn’t really taste like lime.
- Harvest rating: the leaves are small, so harvesting is a pain.
- Preservation: nil.
- Number of plants: five
- Growing results: decent. One of the pumpkins plumped up beautifully and has a deep orange glow. I harvested it the other day and it’ll be our Halloween jack o’ lantern. I also harvested two pumpkins that remained small, but did turn orange and make lovely little decorative gourds. The rest died.
- Harvest rating: easy and the kids loved helping.
- Preservation: jack o’lantern plans are in progress. After eating (and not enjoying) our pumpkins in 2017, we plan to grow pumpkins exclusively for fall harvest decor.
Watermelon and Cantaloupe:
- Number of plants: two of each.
- Growing results: poor. Very poor. I don’t think the cantaloupe ever germinated. Two minuscule watermelons grew, but some varmint made off with them before we could harvest them.
- Harvest rating: unknown.
- Preservation: unknown.
We’re still working to identify our annual consumption of preserved foods, so I’m going to make a spreadsheet of everything we’ve preserved this summer/fall to track what gets eaten, what runs out, and what’s leftover at this time next year. More than anything else, that data will calibrate our plans for our 2020 vegetable garden.
Firewood Splittin’ and Stackin’: The Woodshed Filleth Up
September saw a landmark accomplishment: our three-bay, nine cord capacity woodshed is full.
Before we moved here, my husband told me that his goal was to be three years ahead on wood. I had no idea what he was talking about because we’d never heated a home with wood before (point in fact, we’d mostly lived in apartments in cities). Now that I have three Vermont winters under me, now that I understand our reliance on the wood stove, now that I appreciate the abundance of our forest, I know.
And on September 2, 2019, it happened. Mr. Frugalwoods felled, skidded, bucked, split, and stacked the final logs to fill our woodshed–the woodshed he designed and built last summer. He also added a support under one of the beams on the woodshed because the 2×8 had a knot in it, which weakened it and was starting to buckle under the weight of the wood. It appears to be performing fine with this additional support.
We’re now three years ahead on wood. Each bay of the shed holds three cords of wood, which is what we burn in a year. All three bays together hold nine cords, which equals three years’ worth. This wood right here is what’ll keep us warm this winter, next winter, and the winter after that.
I’m proud of my husband for doing this. I’m proud of him for taking a course on chainsaw safety, for learning to effectively identify and fell trees. Proud of him for learning to skid trees with our tractor, to cut logs and split them. Proud of how demanding the physical labor is to haul and cut and stack wood that’s heavier than me.
I’m proud that he learned to do all of this and that he does it after he’s done with his day job, on the weekends, in the early mornings, before dinner. Log by log, he nurtures and tends our forest, harvests trees to ensure forest growth and diversity, and puts in the hours to make it happen. In one sense, heating with wood is “free.”
In another sense, heating with wood costs hundreds of hours of time and brutal labor. But in another sense, heating with wood is a way to bind yourself to nature. It’s a way to appreciate and understand how a forest grows. It’s a way to express gratitude to trees. It’s a way to warm yourself three times: once when you cut the wood, once when you stack it, and once when you burn it. It’s a way to not take heat for granted. It’s a way to not take nature for granted.
(this section was adapted from an Instagram post of mine)
A Good Old Fashioned Frame Raising, the County Fair, and the Farmer’s Market
Beyond the perimeter of our property, I find love, warmth, and community in our tiny town. We’re grateful to enmesh our lives with our neighbors, thankful for the deep friendships we’ve created, and in love with raising our children here.
We feel so lucky to live among such welcoming, sharing, community-minded folks. To that end, we (and particularly Mr. FW) often find ourselves helping a neighbor with one project or another and, in September, he spent a day at a frame-raising party.
Just like it sounds, just like in children’s picture books of idyllic country life of old, Mr. FW and a bunch of neighbors worked to raise the frame of a neighbor’s new home. All day long, they labored away, driving screws, hauling boards, and hammering. There was–of course–a potluck lunch, ice cream, and children capering around.
I love living in a place where you can ask your neighbors to come help you build a house and they come. They don’t expect to be paid. They just expect to be part of a community with you.
The County Fair
We went to the local county fair in September and I’ll excerpt from my Instagram post about that experience:
I took Kidwoods on her first carousel ride. She gripped that painted horse and I gripped her and around and around we went. This was her first ride of any sort and she wore a look of disbelief. She kept turning to me, opening and closing her mouth, smiling in awe. Wordless–rare for her–and so fully, completely immersed in that moment. The entire fair brought that magic for me.
Little kids led teams of oxen for the junior oxen pull, folks drove their vintage tractors to show, prize-winning watermelons and pumpkins crowded into the display hall alongside tomatoes and zucchini and baskets of award-winning hay. We watched the dairy costume class, where kids ages 10 and under dressed in matching costumes with their calves (tablecloths appear to make ideal cow-outfits).
Wandering through the swine hall, we saw snuggling piglets and Littlewoods just looked and looked in wonder that so many people exist in this world. Then we had a snack and the day was done for us; it was 1pm. Kidwoods fell asleep in the car; Littlewoods soon after. A morning at the fair is all they could handle, is all they needed.
The Farmer’s Market
Somehow I volunteered to help out at the local Farmer’s Market one Friday, which I’ll also excerpt from Instagram:
We volunteered at the farmer’s market and were a disaster. Pretty sure we did none of the assigned responsibilities and mostly were a mess. But the girls were ecstatic. Kidwoods commandeered the markers (meant for the raffle tickets) and colored away. Littlewoods scowled at the market patrons who leaned in to smile at her. We finally abandoned our post to go to the bouncy house.
Thankfully my friend happened to have a booth nearby so I left Littlewoods in her care while Kidwoods and I spun around and around in the bouncy house–both of us rendered the same age in our socks and dresses. Dizzy and exhausted, we scrambled out and got ice cream while Littlewoods was still deep in conversation with our neighbor.
I can’t fully explain what it’s like to live in such a small town. I didn’t grow up like this and so it’s still novel to me. Everywhere we go, we know people. I don’t worry about going out alone with both kids because invariably? Someone will be there to help me.
I don’t think I fully realize my gratitude yet for raising my kids in this little village of support and love. But I know it’s transformational and powerful and the center of my life right now.
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 September, we generated 697 kWh, which is awesome. 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 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 with many 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.
If you want to make sure you don’t miss a post here, sign-up for my handy dandy email list in the box below. You’ll get a message from me if you do…
How was your September?
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