The Weeds Wait for No One

Hello, hello!

February has cruised on by, leaving us with two decent snow storms and then a series of surprisingly warm days… Today, for example, is a beautiful, cloudless day with a temperature of 52. It feels and smells like Spring, and you know it wasn’t even 10am before there was dirt under our fingernails! The weeds wait for no one, and I’ve always had the mindset that it’s never too early to get started. In fact, I feel as though I am perpetually late on weeding, and with these warm temperatures, there were weeds galore looking at me. Some of the Spring flower bulbs that I missed last fall are already coming up as well, so I went around and dug them up, too. My husband pulled off the daunting task of removing the last pachysandra patch, and then yanked an old cedar stump from the ground with our Kubota. I wasn’t optimistic about accomplishing that task before gardening season began, so I actually have no plans for the area! Now I’ll have to look at my seeds and see what I should plant there.

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Our new, freshly cleared garden space!

Of course, we still have a ton of work to do (I don’t believe a day will exist when that won’t be the case, but we like it that way!) yet it is great to be working outside already.

Our garlic is peeking up through the mulch, I hope those cloves are bulking up down under the soil! So far we are still eating our garlic harvest from last year, which is SO satisfying! We finally seemed to have zeroed in on a good number to plant to sustain our verocious garlic appetite – I would be hard pressed to name a savory dish where garlic hasn’t been used in our home!

My husband ordered our Mason bees this morning as well, I am so excited for the new adventure! If these do well, we plan on adding Leafcutter bees to our homestead next year. We are going to make our own little house for the bees, my husband is excited about the project. We are also picking up some more tubing from the hardware store today, as we started tapping maple trees. I think in a normal New England Winter, we would be right on schedule, but with these warm nights, we both are apprehensive about how this will turn out. But, we’ll give it a go and see what happens!

Some of our other projects right now include setting up and adding two more rain barrels, which will be used for watering the gardens. My husband is going to rig up the one for the chicken waterer as well. Then we are making a brooder for the 15 chicks we are receiving in June; and of course all my vegetable and herb seedlings are well under way. The tomatoes, peppers and eggplant were started at the end of Jaunary, and just made the move into the greenhouse. I now have two varieties of cucumbers, more eggplant (the first seedlings don’t look too hot), celery, broccoli, three or four medicinal herbs/flowers and strawberry spinach in the germinator. The strawberry spinach has proven difficult to grow for me, which is ironic as all I read are stories of how easy it was for other gardeners to get going. Now I can get just about anything to grow, and yet this will be third attempt with the damn plant! I wasn’t even going to bother, but I got the seed packet on clearance for $0.35, so . . .

Our daughter is nine months old today, and I can’t believe it. Where does the time go? She has been joining us in all our homestead adventures, bundled up and strapped to our backs, where she chatters and smiles incessantly. She is a baby who likes to be busy at all times… Hmm, where did she get that from, I wonder? It certainly makes every chore more of a physical work out, that’s for sure. We laugh because she enjoys the work now, from her cozy carrier! Will she still love it when she has a bucket in hand, picking up the weeds I hoe up, or when she’s stacking freshly split wood with us?  Maybe she won’t at the time, but we know how these chores are, they grow on you. You reap the benefits – from having fresh food to eat or a warm fire to sit by, to the well-defined muscles, the sun tan and freckles, and to the deep internal joy that comes from being active, living healthy and providing for yourself and your family.

I can’t help but get more excited every day for this gardening season, for all our plans and goals. While the weather is unpredictable, the garden soil needs work and the whole setup is new to us, I welcome the challenges and learning experiences ahead of us…. And yes, all those darn weeds.

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DIY: Fire Starter Blocks & Kindling Bundles

One of the other homesteading projects my husband and I have been working on is collecting kindling and other materials to make starting fires in the winter a snap. Collecting small branches and twigs is pretty impossible in the dead of winter, when everything is buried in snow.

At our family’s cabin, we have always filled 10-gallon buckets with sticks and twigs, which usually suffices, and everyone remembers to bring up newspaper when they go. This works, but only because we take very few trips up there in the winter. Since our wood stove will be our primary heat source at home, we can’t possibly store enough 10-gallon buckets. Buying those fire starting bricks from the store is always an option- but cost aside, what exactly is in those anyway?!

We decided to bundle twigs, smaller branches and newspaper together with twine for an easy fire-starting method: just pop the bundle in, light the paper, and add your logs! These were quick and easy to make, and a great use for all the dead trees we have cut down, and the fallen branches we have been clearing.

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When making your bundles, it’s important to only use black ink newspaper (none of those color ink as inserts; they don’t burn well and the inks aren’t safe to burn indoors anyway) and dry, dead wood. Make sure you choose assortment of twig and branch sizes, from the very thin, easy burners, and up. Twist up a few sheets of newspaper and tuck them in among the branches, wrap with twine, and tie off! Easy. We are storing ours on a shelving wrack in the basement, right next to our wood pile.

The bricks utilize our latest “toy”, which my husband found online. I don’t know where he finds all these things (well, when he isn’t on Craig’s list anyway) but I love this new little tool.

 
It makes 4 bricks at a time, and is simple to use and clean. You only need water, newspaper (again, black ink only) and wood shavings. With all the tree work we have going on, my husband has been saving the shavings left behind by the chainsaw. They are the perfect size for our fire starting bricks! Here are our steps:

  1. Soak newspaper in water overnightIMG_0881
  2. Mix soaked newspaper mush with wood shavings; ours are approximately 2/3 paper, 1/3 wood shavings    IMG_1078
  3. Put mixture into molds, packing on tightly; close and compress IMG_1083-0
  4. Let blocks drain overnight, then remove and place on a rack in the sun to dry completely.IMG_0879
  5. Store in a dry place until ready for use!

These blocks are great with our bundle to quickly get a fire going, and having them ready to go means less work when you get home and the fire has died down. I’ve made many fires with numb fingers, so I can attest that the faster I can get that fire roaring, the happier I am!

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Does anyone else prepare quick fire starting materials for their winter fires? I would love to share tips and tricks!

How My Laundry Line Made Me Love Laundry…

 
I know what you’re thinking: this woman has lost it! One too many days out there in the hot sun and now she loves laundry?! But hear me out!

I have always hated laundry, especially the folding part, and would find any reason to procrastinate. It’s embarrassing, but my laundry cycle looked like this: put off doing any until my husband and I are on the brink of having no clean laundry or towels left, then spend one day going through the motions of loading the washer and then the dryer with back to back loads – usually about 3 or 4. Then allow said laundry to sit in hampers in the living room, moving them out of my way throughout the day and digging through them to find a matching pair of socks. The laundry would finally get folded when I got tired of moving them around (or I was having company!) and then would sit in the basket in my room for another few days until we had either worn everything out of it, or one of us finally put it away. Pathetic, I know, but hey – we all have our flaws, right?!

Moving to our new home changed everything for me. For starters, I’ve always harbored a secret romance with laundry lines. Because our old property didn’t afford me that opportunity, from time to time on hot summer days, I would hang towels over the railings of our deck to dry. Our new house not only has a large line already set up, but it has no machine dryer. Seeing as they were beat up and not worth lugging out of the basement, we had left out old washer and dryer when we sold the house. The sellers we purchased from left their old washing machine, but they didn’t have a dryer – just a line in the yard.

 

Not having the temptation of a dryer to aid in my procrastination, and switching from city water to a well, meant I could no longer let my laundry pile up and then wash it all in one day. I now had to stick to one load per day, only on days where the weather would allow me to use the line, and the loads couldn’t be too large or they wouldn’t fit on the line all at once.

While this requires some planning and a reliable weather predicting source, I discovered something enlightening about this new life:

  1. The loads are manageable ... No more hampers full of laundry!
  2. I love the act of hanging the laundry. I get to be outside in the early morning, enjoying the sun and the fresh air, watching my chickens peck around, and admiring all the trees and wildlife. It’s so peaceful.
  3. My new fold-as-you-go method. It doesn’t make sense to me to take all the laundry down and toss it into a basket where it will then wait to be folded. Instead, I fold each piece as I take it down, and hang socks over the edge of my basket so I can pair them as I go. This means the laundry is done and ready to be put away before I get back inside.
  4.  It’s sustainable. Nothing saves energy like using the sun and the wind to dry your clothes!
  5. I love the scent. There is something that is just so comforting about the gentle, clean smell of line-dry laundry.
  6. It’s efficient. Each load of laundry gets washed, hung, folded and put away that same day. There’s no more mountains to fold, or running out of socks.

If someone had ever told me I would not only do laundry every day, but that I would enjoy doing it, I would have laughed it off. But now it is one of my favorite household chores; I love taking a break from our busy day to enjoy the view, get some fresh air and bring in the line. 

  

DIY: Chicken Coop

The first major project that had to be done upon moving into the new Little Farm was to build a new coop. Our old coop had served us well for the past two years, but it was definitely too urban for our new settings. The previous coop, a re-purposed rabbit hutch, was very open, did not have great security features, and let’s face it, was a bit of an eye sore. Since it had been kept in a small backyard, abutting a fence, and the hens had no real predators in the old neighborhood, the coop had been perfect.

In our new neighborhood, which we affectionately have named “Woodford”, there are many more potential predators lurking in the acres and acres of woods surrounding us. Since our house has many, many windows, we also wanted something that was more ascetically pleasing too.

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My husband built this beautiful coop and run using an old dog house that one of his coworkers didn’t want. Between moving, work and being 9-months pregnant, I didn’t get to lend any real help to this project aside from painting the front and rear of the coop and being there to bounce ideas off of. I am still thrilled every time I look at this coop, because I think it came out so beautiful, and I know how strong it is too.

The construction of the actual coop took place at my in-laws, prior to us moving in to the new house. My husband fixed some damaged siding, made the nesting box, a ladder up into the nesting box and the front and rear doors. I love the little arch for the hens to come in and out of – so cute!

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My husband created an oh-so-adorable barn-style door for the back of the coop. This door is large enough to allow him or myself to get in and out of the coop easily for cleaning, refilling food, regular maintenance and if necessary, chicken-RX! We had some gray paint lying around that just so happened to match the siding on the dog-house-turned-chicken-coop perfectly. Painting the coop was my job, which I happily did since it was one way I could contribute to the project, and it let me husband take a break and get back to other moving-related projects that we had going on at the time.

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At long last, moving day had arrived. My husband and I moved in our things and spent the first few days unpacking, cleaning and getting settled in. A few days later, it was back to coop work! We had chosen the site for the future coop, off to the side of our house but not in the direct view of all the windows in our main living space…. I love my chickens, but not in a in-my-view-100%-of-the-time kind of way! 😉

My husband dug out the area for the run and coop to go, and built the base and platform that the coop would sit on. We wanted to make sure they had space underneath the coop to hang out – not only to maximize their outdoor space, but also to give them a place to hide outside when the sun is too hot, or during the rain, etc. The run is quite large, too – 8′ X 8′! I would say the girls wouldn’t know what to do with all that space, but if you have chickens you know how they are . . . always looking for more space and more greenery to eat and demolish.

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With some help from brothers and cousins, we were able to bring the coop over from my in-laws and get it set up on the platform. Once that was in place, my husband set to work building the run. I love that he went with a slanted-roof design, and did extra steps to make the run look so fancy! It is open for now, with welded wire running across the top to protect from hawks and any climbing predators, but we plan to use a tarp during the winter to help keep snow out.

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All around the run we buried several inches of wire to ensure nothing could dig under and make it into the coop. There is a good layer of rock on top of the wire, followed by dirt. The run was later wrapped in more wire, which made a second wire apron and our beautiful stone wall, which you will see in a few photos, is on top of that. Super secure . . . nothing will be getting at our girls!

And naturally, what hot-weather job would be complete without a nice cold one? Haha I didn’t realize the beer bottle was in the photo until I loaded these pictures up . . . ah, my novice photography skills are showing! 😉

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Some final details of our coop and run . . . around the back of the coop (not visible from the house) is the door where we can enter the run for maintenance, etc. Inside the coop are two roosts and we had some extra laminate flooring which my husband put down so that cleaning the inside of the run would be easier.

One of our other ideas for the coop is to make a rain barrel waterer, so you can see the extra platform space that my husband designed with that in mind. We just have to get a gutter set up on that side of the coop (also not visible from the house!) which will then feed right into some PVC, ending with drinking nipples inside the coop. I’m really excited about this part since it will mean we won’t have to fill their 1-gallon waterer everyday in the summer, there won’t be a water tray that gets filled with dirt from their beaks, and it will save us on water since we have a well. I know, I know, a gallon of water is NOT a big deal when it comes to water preservation, but if we can save some of that beautiful rain water, why not?

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And there you have it! Our stunning new coop. I have a few other little chicken projects in the works that I will share with you shortly, among all the other gardening and landscaping fun as we settle in to life on the new Little Farm!

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The Woes of Chicken Raising

My husband and I are still relatively new to raising chickens. It was only a year ago this past May that we received our first 8 chicks. At the time, our intentions were focused on raising meat birds to satisfy our search for local, free-range, chemical/hormone-free meat that we could feel good about eating.
We ended up with 5 roosters, which in our little neighborhood with it’s nuisance laws, was not great. I learned my lesson on ordering a straight-run and “hoping for the best”!
What we truly did not expect, were the personalities, entertainment and bonding that happened with the remaining 3 hens. I am not kidding when I say the day after the last rooster was processed, I saw an immediate change in the behavior of the hens who we know affectionately call “our girls”. They were relaxed – they laid out in the garden for dirt baths and naps in the sun; they would come running to the gate for treats and snacks, and started following me anywhere I went. It wasn’t long before we found ourselves admitting that those beautiful hens had gone from food to friends!
Over the winter through spring, we learned a lot about each other. Sassy became the attention-hungry diva, jumping into my lap for grooming and cuddling. Little Hen became the garden-expert – any time you till, dig, rake or move the hoe, and her eyes lock on to you as if to say “what needs to be done? I’m on it!”. Amelia (named for Amelia Earhart as she consistently tried to fly into our bedroom and bathroom windows) was evasive to hands and hugs, but was adventurous and a prolific layer. I grew to know who needed to lay an egg, the meaning of their different calls and cries, and more about chicken anatomy then I ever thought I would learn when they acted unwell.
It’s been a wonderful year, and if you had told me last year I would fall in love with those hens, I would’ve laughed. If you’d met me 7 or 8 years ago, the fact that I would even have chickens would have seemed ridiculous!
So it is with great sorrow that I announce that my dear Amelia passed away early last week. It was one of those heartbreaking situations where there is no apparent cause; no symptoms, no foul play. I simply found her one morning, lying in the run beneath the coop. My husband and I buried her in her favorite spot in our garden, and I think of her often. She laid so many eggs – one large, perfect egg each day – that we still have many of her eggs in our fridge! The day we crack the last one will be sad, but I look back on the joy and time we had together, and the wonderful eggs she provided us every day. While we have adopted two new young hens, and I look forward to new challenges and adventures with them, I hope they know what a wonderful hen went before them!

No plant left behind!

This week I spent a bunch of time in my herb garden splitting and transplanting my perennials. I have a decent sized herb garden where we live now, which has several well established herbs – choked out by mint though they may be. I planted the mint two years ago in an attempt to choke out the onion grass which grows rampant there. I had given up on the idea of having my vegetable garden there – not only did the squirrels think it was their spot to hide peanuts, but it got way too much sun.
My husband generously allowed me to tear up the one spot on our property that had nice grass, and my giant garden / chicken yard was born.

In the time since the side garden was established as an herb bed, it’s seen it’s share of new herbs – mint, spearmint, yarrow, lemon balm, sage, rosemary, lavender, marjoram, basil, burdock and echinechea. Some have done well (aka – forced themselves upon the others) and others have been all but destroyed (I could scarcely find my marjoram amidst all the mint!!)

I was able to take cuttings or split entire plants for all of the above minus the burdock and echinechea which I am NOT leaving behind! Being my first year splitting plants, it was an adventure. My neighbors must think I’m nuts. I apologized profusely to my lavender plants as I stabbed it with a shovel to break it apart, and begged it to forgive my ignorance if I killed it as I had very little idea of what I was doing… google can only prepare you so much. My burdock I cradled like a little baby and carefully tucked the carrot like roots into a deep pot with fresh soil and water.

So far, everyone (aka the plants) seem like they are going to make it. There was the normal drooping and pouting but they seem to have perked up. Not bad for another year of winging it!

Only a few weeks away . . .

Spring is starting to take hold here in Connecticut! The last few days have been warmer and sunny, which has allowed for a lot of much needed yard work and garden preparations!
With my husband and I potentially listing our house for sale in just a few weeks, it has drastically changed my gardening plans! Originally I drew out a to-scale outline of my garden and where each plant would go. Since we may not be here when all the plants are ready to be harvested, I have had to revamp my plan to an all-container garden.
I have done some plants in containers before, but not our entire annual harvest, so this should be interesting! I’ve also had to redesign the back yard so that it won’t look like an empty dirt patch begging for plants, and more like a usable space for potential buyers!
My last few days off from work I spent outdoors, raking leaves and transplanting a mound of dirt one shovel full at a time to the back garden. I even foolishly got the first sunburn of the year when I forgot to put on sunscreen after taking off my winter-weather layers!

All of the indoor plants are doing well, I am so happy with our tomato plants!
Cherry Tomatoes
We’re officially under 50 days as of today for the countdown to Planting Day! =)

2014 Garden-Season Kick Off!

While most people are looking forward to Superbowl parties, for me this brings the start of gardening season. As soon as my plants start to die in the fall, I begin the process of planning for the next season. By the time most people have just started receiving their garden catalogs and ordering seeds, I’ve drawn out my garden plan foot-by-foot, taken seed inventory, ordered any new seeds I needed and tested the patience of my husband who kindly reminds me there are still months left till “garden season” actually begins. I can’t help it, I absolutely love gardening and the easiest way for me to pass the cold, snowy winters we get is looking forward to all that new growth and sunshine. I’ve painstakingly counted down the days to February 1st, just as I’ll continue to countdown to March and May. For Connecticut, our average last frost date is Memorial Day, which this year is Monday, May 26th. I’ve already planned my vacation around that week – prepping, tilling, planting and hovering over my baby plants the first week is a must.  In the past years, I have always started my seeds around March 1st, which generally works out pretty well. But I do see a few crops, especially my tomatoes, that seem to truly struggle along those first weeks. While Memorial Day promises no more frost, it doesn’t mean we’re breaking out the shorts yet either.

So to give my tomatoes and a few other crops that have longer maturity / germination rates the extra time they need, I am starting those seeds February 1st. With the addition of our fodder system this year, we had to come up with a way to keep the germinator, fodder system and greenhouse in our little kitchen without taking up anymore space. My husband went out and bought a simple metal rack which houses the fodder system, and both the germinator the warming mat fit perfectly on top.Image

Today I filled some of the sections up with dirt. There may be more than I need for now, but I’d rather have them warm and ready to go than to wait. I keep a little bucket of dirt from my garden in the house. I am lucky enough to have pretty good soil as it is, and I compost diligently throughout the year. One of the little tricks I have learned over the years is not to fill the outer rows if you can avoid it. Once the plants reach that awkward tall-but-not-ready-for-the-germinator stage it makes putting the lid back on difficult. Inevitably plants gets caught and smushed. Hopefully by offsetting my plantings this year, I can avoid using them at all.

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In another week or two, I will move the germinator and fodder system over to the right, and bring up our greenhouse to put in the window. I am so excited to start the seeds and get the season going. I’ll still wait until March to start the usual crops – especially items like squash that grow rapidly; and naturally I have the plants that get direct seeded Memorial Day. Image

Still, even starting these few little seeds makes the “Official Planting Day” seem a lot closer than 117 days … then again, who’s counting? 😉 

 

Chicken, I am your . . .fodder?

OK, I know – that header was cheesy! Sometimes I just can’t help it.

My husband and I always try to keep the holidays low key, especially when it comes to gift giving. This year my husband bought the “gift that keeps giving” – a home fodder system to produce our own chicken feed. It’s amazingly simply – a frame of pvc pipes, a pump and water bin. He purchased a dried seed blend of wheat, barley and sunflower seeds. They only require a half hour soak in water before you put them in their little tray. The system rinses them down every two hours for about 20 minutes, and the only thing you have to do is change the water daily!

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This couldn’t have come at a better time, as well. Our nearest farm supply store is close to an hour away; and the ones that don’t take advantage of their location and charge insane prices for a bag of chicken pellets are close to two hours away! We went up to the family cabin for new years, anticipating that we would buy more feed at the local Tractor Supply to find that it was closed due to the holiday. All I could think of was returning home to my sad, cold, hungry little hens. We had some wild bird seed left, as well as leftover deer feed from the hunting season that has stretched us through until that point.

Thank goodness my joy at being able to grow something to preoccupy the long wait until I can start my garden seeds had led me to set up four trays of fodder Christmas morning. They take about 6 to 8 days to grow, so just as we ran out of chicken feed, it was ready! Each time I empty a tray I setup another, and it has, amazingly enough, proved to be plenty of food. Natural fodder has much more protein and nutrients than the pellets, so they don’t need as much as they do with the store bought grain.

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My husband still went out of his way this morning to go pick up a bag of feed, but considering the hens fought each other out of the coops’ doorway to get to the fodder in my hands . . . I think we won’t be needing as much anymore!

 

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