Dreams, gardening, Simple Living, Suburban Homestead

How We’re Getting Started on Our Homestead Dream Now, In the Suburbs

It’s hard to say when my husband and I first started entertaining ourselves with the idea of owning our own homestead out in the country. Perhaps it started with an article I read years ago in the Oprah magazine about a couple who bought up hundreds of acres in a former wasteland and worked tirelessly to convert it into a lush conservatory that now gets thousands of dollars in grant money a year because it’s the home of so many endangered species who started flocking there once their habitat was restored. Perhaps it started when we visited Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah, and Matt started to cook up his own idea for starting up a sanctuary here in Northern Utah. Perhaps it started when I found blogs like The Frugalwoods and read about how other families in the same season of life were rejecting the rush and bustle of modern living and slowing things way down in the country.

But I feel like it goes back even farther than all that.

Have you ever taken one of those questionnaires to try and determine what career path would be best for you, and the question pops up—“What interested you as a child?”

Well, when I was 10 or so, I put some of my hard-earned money towards magazine subscriptions to Birds and Blooms and membership in The National Gardening Assocation. I also asked for (and received) thick gardening reference books for my birthday, which I then sought to memorize. You see, I was absolutely sure I was going to be a landscape architect (if I ended up not being a teacher), and I was fully prepared to get a fairly good headstart on that proposition.

Even once that dream fizzled out after about five or six years, I have always been drawn to rural life, which is kind of funny because I definitely didn’t grow up in the country. While other people might seek out gorgeous interiors or picture-perfect families or what-have-you on Instagram, I use the majority of my free time on that platform scrolling farm feeds.

So Why the Homestead Life?

There’s a lot that appeals to us about buying as much acreage as we can afford and owning our own little farmhouse someday:

  • The chance to raise our kids in a world where the outdoors is more a part of their childhood than screens
  • The opportunity to regularly work with our hands
  • The certainty that we’d learn a whole plethora of new skills (and be able to teach those same skills to our children)
  • The satisfaction that comes from eating and preserving food you’ve grown yourself
  • The pursuit of beauty after the test of hard labor
  • The chance to pare life down to the essentials, to take advantage of these precious years we have now with our kids while they’re young and impressionable and willing to soak up all the good we can teach them
  • The pleasure that comes from pursuing things we’re passionate about (for my husband–woodworking and raising animals, for me–cultivating a garden and pursuing my photography)

There are infinitely more reasons we want to embark on this grand homestead adventure, but we’ll leave it there for now.

However…

Financially, it doesn’t appear to be in the cards right now. Sure, we could find some barren land available for cheap somewhere in Nowhere, Utah and start totally from scratch (while Matt worked full-time for several years to actually pay for the mortgage of said property).

Ideally, though, we want a place with trees. Lots of trees. And preferably a place with some features of our future homestead dream already in place, like a barn or a woodworking shed or a defined garden plot. We’d also like to stay in Cache Valley.

Oh, and we’d ideally like for Matt to be semi-retired.

So, though I’ll continue to check the real estate listings monthly for everything coming available with lot sizes of over 5 acres in the hopes that something will magically come up in our price point, we’re staying put for the time being.

Our Plan for Living the Dream Now (Ish)

I find that I’m often tempted by the thought that if I can’t have something EXACTLY as I want it NOW, I might as well just not have anything to do with it at all. Take our upstairs bathroom, for instance—Matt and I have big renovation dreams of replacing the builder-grade countertops, upgrading the tile, adding in shiplap or backsplash, updating the shower, getting a new sink, and installing a new light fixture (not to mention painting the cabinets). We know it will be a renovation that will cost at least $800 or so (even with us doing all the work ourselves), so for the first year and a half we lived here, we did nothing but paint the walls.

Then I had an epiphany—

It was silly to allow our main bathroom to remain a blank slate just because we couldn’t afford our dream renovation. So, I recruited my mom to help me, we budgeted $100, and we upgraded the space in the meantime. And while it’s not our dream bathroom, it brings me SO MUCH MORE happiness using it now than it ever did before.

We started applying the same philosophy to our Big Homestead Dream.

For starters, if we weren’t willing to put in work NOW to maintain our quarter-acre property the best we could, what made us think we could handle more? And while we might not have the acres of trees and farmland and pastures for the animals NOW, we can still learn many of the crucial homestead skills we’d need right where we’re at.

How We’re Creating Our Homestead in the ‘Burbs

Vegetable and Flower Gardens

Our home was landscaped by some of the previous owners to be as low maintenance as possible, which meant basically zero flower or garden beds and the existing trees and shrubs being surrounded by beds of wood chips and red rocks. While we do love much about the current design and layout, we don’t love the lack of flora.

The soil that was brought in for this subdivision is rocky and poor, so cultivating beds that can actually be hospitable for plants has been tricky. We discovered our first summer here, after transplanting our tomato and pepper plants upon moving in, that we probably weren’t going to have much luck for awhile with the beds as they were.

So, last year we built two raised garden beds to start our vegetable and herb garden, and this year, we built two more. We plan to basically do all of our edible gardening in the raised beds, just because it seems like the most productive option at this point. Eventually, we’re going to put up some pretty high trellises/cages on the beds to maximize our square footage there, but for now, we’ve got a little herb garden with cilantro, parsley, basil, and chives, a strawberry patch that’s doubled in size since last year, a pumpkin plant that’s trying to take over the world, and some tomatoes, peppers, beets, cucumbers, squash, and, with luck, maybe a watermelon or two. Verdict is still out on whether our sweet potato plant will make it.

We haven’t given up on our flower dreams either, however. Oh, no. Rather, we’ve been slooooowly adding in one perennial here, one perennial there as we have the money and energy to fight the dirt, and with each new plant put in, we clear away a bit more of the wood chips and red rocks. Last year, we filled out the previously totally empty bed outside of our kitchen window with some daylily, tulip, and miniature iris transplants, and this year, we’ve started filling in the curved side bed with perennials known for spreading well, such as peonies, more daylilies, columbine, and Jupiter’s beard. And, in my effort to transform another blank bed into something of beauty, we planted the shady bed in the side yard with hostas, ferns, hardy orchids, and high-reaching delphinium and bellflowers.

Right now we have a fantastically out-of-control weed problem (as you’ll see in these pictures), but believe it or not, we’ve actually made enormous progress on actually getting some plants on our property.

Our “Orchard”

I dream of one day having a true orchard—twenty or thirty trees of various fruit types that will leave me feverishly canning and preserving at breakneck speed come August and not letting up until late September or October.

For now, our orchard consists of two wild apple trees that we inherited with the yard and two trees we planted last year—a peach and an apricot. Our peach tree is actually producing fruit this year (an unexpected surprise that has delighted us to no end), but our apricot probably won’t until at least next year, maybe even the year after.

We weren’t aware that our apple trees were wild until last fall, when we took the fruit to a local apple orchard and had the owners weigh in on it. Basically, wild apple trees occur when a tree is allowed to grow from one of the offshoots, and as the previous owners used to have four apple trees but cut down all four, these two we have had grown up from some of the offshoots and were left to their own devices.

This year, we decided to try grafting tame apple branches (called scions) onto our wild apple trees, and we even were able to get some cuts from our favorite apple orchard of a few of their best varieties. We spent about four hours one Saturday using various grafting methods to cut in about two dozen scions of three different varieties onto our trees, and then we waited with bated breath.

Unfortunately, not a single graft has taken.

Bummer.

We’re not sure if it was due to the freak snowstorm we had later that week, or if it was due to our novice grafting abilities, but it looks like we’ll be trying again next year.

Our Chickens

While gardening has always been the main part of my homestead dream, raising animals has always been the biggest part of my husband’s. Trouble is, he’s married to me, and I am NOT a pet person, ha ha.

However, I have always been amenable to the idea of raising chickens because 1) they can live outside, and 2) they actually produce food for us, so this year, I finally agreed to give it a shot.

We bought six chicks back in April, and after one tragically died in my hand, we now have five no-longer-small chickens who are currently living in our garage in a makeshift interim coop while Matt is feverishly trying to finish up their coop palace (seriously, though—their coop is basically going to be as big as our backyard storage shed).

They haven’t quite started laying eggs for us yet (and we’re still not sure if one of the straight-run chicks we bought is actually a rooster), but I think they’ll probably start laying in about a month or two.

Not-Too-Distant Future Plans

Right now, our vegetable and herb beds are a bit haphazard—eventually, like I said above, we’d like to look into square foot gardening and use trellises and stakes to get the maximum yield possible from those. Next year, I think we’ll try planting grapevines so we can make our own juice, and I’ll probably have Matt build me an archway or trellis of some kind to go along our back fence to support that.

Depending on how our raised beds do this year, I’m hoping to further my knowledge of preserving this fall by bottling homemade salsa and maybe looking into bottling some of the jam we’ll make from our blackberries, too. My mom gifted us all her old canning and preserving equipment, but we’ve only used them once in the 8 years we’ve been married (and that was with a LOT of help from my mom), so I’d like to become a lot more familiar with how to do it on my own.

A small part of me has always wanted a little baby goat (ideally a dwarf goat, so it will always stay small), and Matt, of course, is all on board with that idea. I don’t know that our current space is roomy enough for such a pet, but we might look into it in the next year or two if we’re still here.

You Can Never Start Too Early

Here’s one thing I’ve learned—we’re bound to make a lot of mistakes, especially in the beginning. So the fact we’ve decided to start now is actually pretty perfect, because it’s given us a low-stakes playing field to start out on. Since our livelihood doesn’t currently depend on our vegetable-growing or animal-keeping ability, I’m glad we figured out some mistakes now rather than later, when maybe it will make more of a difference. It’s also provided a way for us to maybe “ease” into it—maybe test the waters a bit to see if this is something we’re still interested in pursuing (spoiler alert: it definitely is, at least thus far).

Last week, I snipped fresh chives for my lunchtime baked potatoes, cilantro for my homemade enchiladas, and fragrant basil for a new pasta recipe I was trying. Each evening, our family does a “walkabout,” where we comment on everything new that bloomed that day, the small tomatoes and other vegetables we’ve noticed starting, new places we’ve seen weeds, or future project plans we’re taking note of. Most nights after the kids are in bed, Matt goes out to water the garden and work on the coop, while I clean up the kitchen or read a book, rather than us just wasting time online or watching t.v. like we used to do. Yesterday, Raven and I spent a hardworking and somewhat sweaty two hours during the baby’s morning nap weeding, pruning the wild rosebush, and taking yet more rocks out of the flower beds.

And it all makes me realize that there’s no point in putting off our dream—we’re living it now. And just in case we never happen to fulfill our Big Homestead Wish, I’ll sure be glad we didn’t wait to just pursue the best of life now.

Does the homestead life appeal to you? Or do you have any tips for us newbies?