Homestead Diary Week of March 25th, 2016

Saturday was a great start to the homestead week. Despite it being cold (it was snowing lightly the entire time I was working) it was actually quite enjoyable to be outside. My first order of business was getting the compost bin modified. The city required that I put solid sides on three sides of the bin, with some allowance for ventilation.

I ended up cleaning out the entire bin, screening the finished compost, and shredding up some bulky yard debris with the lawnmower before putting it back in the modified bin. Hopefully the shredded material will break down faster. Plus, it’s really hard to fork out tangled tomato vines and cut-down daisies.

My homemade compost screen. 1/4" hardware cloth is a little too fine (1/2" would be ideal) but it works.

My homemade compost screen. 1/4″ hardware cloth is a little too fine (1/2″ would be ideal) but it works. I didn’t want to buy brand-new 1/2″ cloth when I had a scrap piece in the garage that was the perfect size.

I ended up with enough finished compost to fill 2 garden beds.

I ended up with enough finished compost to fill 2 garden beds.

Animals definitely tunneled underneath the bin, but were stymied by the hardware cloth.

Animals definitely tunneled underneath the bin, but were stymied by the hardware cloth.

The finished bin. Not pretty but it will work.

The finished bin. Not pretty but it will work.

I felt a bit vindicated by how the hardware cloth had kept the rodents out from underneath. That said, there was a dead rat I found inside the pile. Yuck. I’m guessing he got in through some loose gaps in the hardware cloth before I thoroughly re-stapled it after this last round of complaints. So maybe my compost was creating part of the problem. So I’m learning. Hopefully it will be resolved now.

After finishing the bin I had time to build a few more garden beds and do more broadforking. The bed where I grew most of the tomatoes last year was super exciting – there were tons of earthworms! Easily 6+ per square foot, which is a huge improvement over last year, and especially impressive considering how cold the ground is. I’m definitely working to regenerate our little piece of ground, despite in past years being the ones to hire professional weed-and-feed service. Very cool to see how things are turning around.

Sunday I stopped at a local feed store to check out the supplies they had while doing other errands. They have a ready-to-assemble chicken coop that looks interesting for a bit over $200. I’m considering it but I will probably still build my own owing to a few design issues I have with it.

Monday, despite being nice weather outside, became a spring cleaning day. The kids room and their play area in the basement were just overrun with clutter. Alpha also has some bites that look suspiciously like bed bugs, so a thorough cleaning, removal (and wash) of fabric items, and purchase of bedbug proof mattress covers was done. I was honestly as knackered after that day as any day in the garden.

Tuesday I wanted to do some homeschool stuff. I also had to be home to receive our compost delivery. It came earlier in the day than I thought so we didn’t get much school done but we were all busy outside. You forget just how big a cubic yard is until you see 12 of them in a pile. I got quite a bit spread before needing to stop and make dinner.

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After dinner I seeded a tray of chives. Depending on germination rates I should have some plants to share with friends and family.

Wednesday I got up early, ate breakfast, and spread compost for a couple hours before coming inside to get the kids some additional food and then start school for the day. While doing school it began to rain but just as we were finishing up there was a break in the rain so I hurried outside. Not long after I got out there the rain resumed, occasionally switching to sleet, but it was never terribly bad considering I had some waterproof gear on.

I’m now 99% done with broadforking for this year – just one small bed I haven’t decided what will get planted in this year. I’ll still have use for it in preparing the ground before sheet mulching for an edible hedge planted next year. What a fantastic tool even with the cost! There’s no way I could have gotten as much done this fast without it. We’ll see if I need to use it on this site going forward since I mulch overwinter, but I’ll be hanging onto it in case I need to break ground on any future offsite gardens – and of course for our future homestead/farm.

There’s still more compost to spread but I was getting to a fatigue point that I felt it was safer to stop. Thursday ended up being quite wet, with some snow, so I had a day to recover.

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Friday morning was sunny with no wind so even with an inch of fresh snow on the ground it felt quite pleasant compared to the rainy days. Nothing was frozen hard, everyone wanted to be outside, so I went to work on getting the rest of the delivered compost out of the street. It was a tiring beast of a job but I finished it.

While working on it I had quite a few conversations with neighbors. Two of my immediate neighbors chatted with me for a while about gardening. A woman introduced me, saying she had always admired my rhubarb. A man stopped on his way to take a bike ride and gave me some Egyptian walking onion bulbs, then ended up chatting with me about all sorts of things.

I am taking a serious look at making a last-minute order of some perennials. I staked out their potential locations and also staked out the corners of the future chicken coop and run to help me visualize how it will all fit together.

I’m hoping I get a delivery of tree chips soon so I can cover up the dirt, but I can’t complain when they are dumped for free. Normally my hookup is able to dump a load within a week or two of my asking.

A wide angle view of the west yard.

A wide angle view of the west yard.

Expanded this bed with compost to fit the additional raspberries on order.

Expanded this bed with compost to fit the additional raspberries on order.

Our strawberry 'nursery'. These will go back in the ground in the next few days. Plenty more have already been transplanted.

Our strawberry ‘nursery’. These will go back in the ground in the next few days. Plenty more have already been transplanted.

A closer view of the main west yard and the updated rabbit fence.

A closer view of the main west yard and the updated rabbit fence.

A shot of the far east yard. The soft-sided bed will be planted in tomatoes. I'll be planting a cherry tree and a Hansen's bush cherry to the right of the bed.

A shot of the far east yard. The soft-sided bed will be planted in tomatoes. I’ll be planting a cherry tree and a Hansen’s bush cherry to the right of the bed.

The remaining compost that has not been spread. Some of this will be used for containers, perennial plantings, and the rest will be used to sheet mulch the hedgerow I will be planting along the property line next year.

The remaining compost that has not been spread. Some of this will be used for containers, perennial plantings, and the rest will be used to sheet mulch the hedgerow I will be planting along the property line next year.

Another bed that will get an apple tree and annuals. The peach tree behind it is pretty much dead. Last year it was trying to sucker from the root stock but animals (I'm guessing rabbits) were eating it down. If it shows signs of life this year I will pot it up and  see if it can be saved in the fenced area.

Another bed that will get an apple tree and annuals. The peach tree behind it is pretty much dead. Last year it was trying to sucker from the root stock but animals (I’m guessing rabbits) were eating it down. If it shows signs of life this year I will pot it up and see if it can be saved in the fenced area.

A soft-sided raised bed. Future home of an apple tree and some other annual plants.

A soft-sided raised bed. Future home of an apple tree and some other annual plants.

A view looking the long way down the house to the east.

A view looking the long way down the house to the east.

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Homestead Diary week of March 18th, 2016

I started the week by keeping an eye on the broccoli trays I seeded at the end of last week. On Monday morning I noticed radicals emerging from most of the seeds so I moved the trays from the upstairs table I use for germination down to the basement workbench and fired up the grow light. This way light is available as soon as the cotyledons emerge. Not technically necessary but I’m excited to use my new growlight.

I also calculated the materials needed to finish the bed construction. Last week I had done a total of 17 beds and thought I was about halfway done but in reality I will need 29 more beds to complete my desired layout. I may reduce that number as I don’t think my offsite garden will benefit from raised beds this year.

On Monday I broadforked a few beds. One long strip of beds will be planted in green beans later so I covered it in mulch. One I sowed some early lettuce. The soil’s still a bit cold but I figured I’d take a chance. In another section I got the beds I’ll be sowing peas in ready. Finally, I reinstalled 2 of the 3 sections of rabbit fence I removed when revamping the bed layout. I haven’t seen many rabbits at all but I still prefer to have one section of the garden protected from them.

Tuesday I wasn’t expecting to get much done because the weather sounded dreadful. We did a full homeschooling day but the rain still hadn’t arrived yet when we finished. Before it came I had time to build one more raised bed and broadfork the space for 5 beds. In the previous garden layout I had buried 12″ of soil on top of the stump of a Japanese yew stump I’d opted to cut below soil level instead of digging out. I’m not sure if these are popular outside of the Midwest, but they’re the scourge of modern gardeners. After being buried for 3 years, however, the root system had rotted away enough that I was able to pry up the stump (still weighing a good 20 pounds) when I hit it with the broadfork with minimal fuss.

I also had to play ‘transplant the strawberries’ again as my old plantings just don’t line up with the new, more efficient use of space. I’m discovering it’s much easier to broadfork before the beds are in position. A good percentage of the broccoli seedlings have unfurled their cotyledons. The Agrobrite T5 grow light seems to be putting out excellent light, since the plants aren’t stretching for the light at all.

Wednesday was very rainy in the morning. The main homestead event of the day was hearing back from the city about my compost bin. They are requiring me to cover up 3 sides of it with plywood instead of just hardware cloth. I don’t see how this makes it any more rat proof than it already is, nor do I think they actually think so. I think they’re hoping having the solid sides on the 3 most visible sides will just limit complaints about it being unsightly.

Thursday was a nice sunny day, which always makes even indoor tasks like homeschooling and cleaning more enjoyable. In between one of our school subjects I thinned the broccoli seedlings in one of the trays where Gamma had “helped” by planting 5+ seeds in each cell. We got outdoors later in the afternoon but because I was just reheating leftovers for dinner I had enough time to get a fair amount done. First I built the last three beds for the area inside the rabbit fence. Then I finished the last side of it. It needs a couple minor tweaks yet but it’s complete. Finally, I broadforked 50 feet worth of beds.

Today promises to be a rain-snow mix for a good part of the day so I probably won’t get much done, if at all, but looking back on the week I’m quite happy with the progress I’ve made this early in the year. I’m also really thankful that at some point today one of my new friends from the homesteading group I’m in is delivering eggs and sheets of OSB to modify my compost bin with. Otherwise I’d have to borrow or rent a truck to get the lumber but he was working in the area and offered to bring the stuff with his work truck.


Homestead Diary March 11th, 2016

I started this week by ordering a couple of expensive but hopefully one-time tool purchases. The first is a Meadow Creature broadfork. Broadforks are a manual cultivation tool that loosens and aerates soil for improved tilth without inverting any of the soil layers. It’s recommended by many practicioners and this particular brand of broadfork is the only model I know of that’s strong enough to stand up to clay and hardpan.

I also ordered a spading fork from Lee Valley that should help when harvesting root crops and also for turning compost and cleaning up animal bedding. Lee Valley is a vendor that comes well recommended and has an unconditional guarantee on the tools they sell. The fork was only about $20 more including shipping than big box store forks, and about $50 cheaper than the model Johnny’s Seeds sells, so I’m hoping it indeed works out. I received it on Wednesday and it already proved quite useful for one chore and seems very solidly built.

The weather for much of this week was warm (short sleeves by 9AM!) with some rain. There’s a dead patch of grass on my off-site garden my zucchini shaded out that I seeded last fall but I decided to throw some more seed down for better germination chance. In my own lawn there’s a number of muddy, thin spots that I overseeded with NZ white clover. I haven’t finalized the bed designs yet, so I may have created an inadvertent weed problem for my future self but I didn’t sow clover in any of the spots I knew for sure I was installing a bed.

I picked up another load of lumber over the past weekend. The layout of the main yard has ended up a little different than I’d intended because of how out-of-square the sidewalks are in relation to each other but I like the way it’s coming together. I’ll have to come up with a creative solution for one side that maximizes growing area but still gives me a secure anchor for the rabbit fence. I’m thinking of using corrugated steel roofing panels tucked up against the sidewalk.

I’d estimate I have about half of the beds for this year done at this point. The saver in me is freaking out that I’m over budget for the year already but we have the money. Getting as much of the infrastructure here in order will allow me to then consider searching for a third site next year. The whole point of striving for financial independence is spending on what your true priorities are. The Alchemist and I talked and she’s okay with me going over budget if it makes a difference in the overall function.

Another large expenditure I’m considering is having a sizable amount of aged and screened composted manure delivered. I can get 12 cuyd delivered for ~$350, which is enough to provide a nice 2″ top layer to the beds that need it. This will up our site fertility for the heavy feeder crops growing this season. For next season and beyond, the chickens (and any other future animals we add) should provide enough fertility when combined with their bedding and free deliveries of waste wood chips for mulch.

Overall the kids have been having a lot of fun helping me with everything from handing me screws, filling the wheelbarrow with mulch, transplanting strawberries, and measuring the boards. They are so obsessed with measuring things that I found two spare ‘swag bag’ measuring tapes that I’m letting them destroy play with in the name of science.

Someone from the city came out and talked about my compost bin. I’m in the middle of resolving a code violation complaint about it. He seems very reasonable (even specifically said “we’re not your enemy”) but I’ll probably end up having to make some modifications to the compost bin. He said he has to think about it and discuss with others within the city government, as I brought up a couple potent objections to the initial case against me that seemed to resonate with him. It pays to do your research, folks!

Today’s task after school time is getting a tray or two of broccoli started and getting the necessary chain and hooks to hang my new grow light. Last year I had a 150W HPS grow light which provided adequate light for two trays at best, and doesn’t have a great light dispersion. That will be my backup. My new primary grow light is an 8 tube 4 foot T5HO grow light that can light either two trays with just the inner tubes on or 4 trays with the whole fixture lit. So now my seedling capacity is 6 trays at once, which should be plenty for this year. Any further expansion of my seedling capacity and I’ll have to add shelving space to house lights and trays.