Hello, friends! In case you’re just recently tuning in, my husband and I have had the dream of living on a “real” homestead (ideally at least 5+ acres) for years now. However, since our reality currently means that this dream is nowhere close to being in reach, we have decided to do what we can on our 0.28 acre property in the suburbs. This is a new series that will talk about our experiments, our successes and failures, and what we are learning along the way. It will also include cost breakdowns since I always wish that more homesteading blogs would talk about the financial aspect of things. Hope you enjoy!
Shorter Fall, Early Winter?
For the last couple years, our falls have seemed gloriously stretched out—we were still enjoying snowless weeks well into November, with plenty of sunshine and the leaves still clinging to the branches until the bitter end.
Not this year.
This year, the temps dropped 20-30 degrees basically as soon as the calendar announced the first official day of autumn, and there we’ve pretty much stayed. As I love the cooler temps, I’m not complaining, but it has meant this—
A very early hard frost. And a somewhat unexpected (but thankfully brief) snowfall on my birthday, the 29th of September.
Luckily, the day or two before this snowfall, I’d by chance seen a post by a neighbor on Facebook about how she’d gathered in all of her produce from the garden, as the first hard frost was expected that night. Unfortunately, I didn’t see this post until nighttime. During a freezing cold rainstorm.
That was why, that sleeting weekend night, you would have found Matt and I out in the back by the raised beds with a flashlight and a large umbrella, frantically trying to locate all the ripe vegetables we could in the pitch black, streaming darkness, our fingers and noses numb with cold and rain pelting against our backs.
Since then, our nighttime temps have stayed consistently in the upper 20’s to mid-30’s, and all the leaves on our shrubs and trees changed color in about the span of a week, which are now (already) being shed as the freezing cold canyon winds whip down our neighborhood every morning.
We’re trying to brace ourselves for what will likely be a brutal winter.
This Year’s Harvest: The Fabulous, The Failures, + the Nonexistent
Last year, we built our first two raised garden beds and also planted a small vegetable garden in the area of the yard we’d tried to reclaim from The Patch (a wild tangle of weeds and raspberries and yarrow that’s taken over everything in that area behind the shed). Other than our tomatoes (which failed dismally last year), we didn’t get too bad of a haul in 2018—cucumbers coming out of our ears, a single basil plant that could have made 25 batches of pesto, and parsley that we were still snipping (and that was somehow still growing) even under a blanket of snow. We also got watermelons, pumpkins, berries, butternut squash (only a couple, but still), and a few green peppers to round things out.
This year, we built two more raised garden beds, attempted to graft tame scions onto our wild apple trees (more on that in a minute), and knew (much) better than last year the correct way to prune our abundant blackberry bush so that it would continue to produce bucketfuls by the day.
But whether it was due to the summer taking a long time to heat up or insufficient rainfall (or overwatering on our part) or the particular blend of the batch of compost from the dump that we spread over the beds this year, our plants took a looooong time to show any fruit, and some never produced anything at all. Things that had done well last year—watermelon, squash, pumpkins—produced nothing this year. (Well, we did get some pumpkins, but they brightened to orange way too early in August while they were still fairly small and then the entire vine withered suddenly thereafter).
We tried beets for the first time this year, which did fine—-but then every single one went to waste (out of the dozen or so we planted) because 1) we didn’t know at which point we should uproot them, and 2) I’ve actually never cooked with beets, and so I didn’t know what to do with them. So, while I sat undecided for days, the beets rotted in the crisper, making me think that we must have a dairy product in the back of the fridge that had gone horribly sour.
Our herbs (chives, parsley, basil, cilantro) did okay, but they were nothing compared to last year (though I was overall better at using them on a regular basis before they bolted). And our cucumber plant produced a total of two cucumbers, I believe (as compared to the dozens and dozens we were unable to keep on top of last year, many of which I ended up giving away to neighbors and to our local food pantry).
However, in May we bought a cherry tomato plant from the nursery that we weren’t sure would even survive the night…but that then proceeded to take over half the bed. Our children gorged themselves on bowls and bowls of fresh blackberries until the hornets took over, greedily guarding the dark nuggets so that we were unable to even try to get any after that point (which happened, of course, right after I’d purchased everything I needed to make homemade blackberry ice cream). And our green peppers, which didn’t look like they’d make it at all through June and July, somehow managed to pull off a plentiful harvest as we stood outside in the freezing rain that black night. (And I even managed to not let hardly any go to waste, as I decided to dehydrate them to use in soups this winter, and I did it early enough before they spoiled. #gome).
We didn’t expect anything from the two fruit trees we’d planted just last year, but lo and behold, our peach tree had a plethora of hard fuzzy fruits on it after we’d enjoyed its spring blossoms. I knew we probably shouldn’t leave them be (since the tree needed all the energy it could get to just keep growing), but I couldn’t bear to knock them all down, so I only took down about half. Well, as the fruit never seemed to get very big (although it did take on a peach-red color) and the peaches never fully ripened or developed as they should, I’m thinking I should have just shown the tree some tough love and knocked them all down from the get-go.
An Unexpected Surprise Late in the Season
In the spring, we drove to our local orchard to pick up 24 scions of three different apple varieties to graft onto our two wild apple trees.
Quick grafting lesson:
When trees are allowed to grow up from the offshoots that form at the base of the fruit tree, those trees will actually be wild and not produce good “tame” fruit. In our case, the owners before us had inherited 4 apple trees, which they then chopped down. However, they let two new trees grow up from the offshoots of that, which is how we ended up with two wild Red Delicious apple trees that produced fruit that was just off—wrong texture, small size, sour taste, etc.
To fix this, you can splice open branches on the existing tree and bind them to scions (small branches that have been cut from “tame” trees). If done correctly, the branch will start producing the new fruit, and you won’t have to start a new tree from scratch.
We bought a special grafting tape, enlisted the help of a friend who knew more about the theory/techniques of grafting than we did, and she and Matt spent about four hours one morning in late spring binding in the new grafts.
Then we waited for something to happen. And waited. And waited. And finally, when by mid-July we still hadn’t seen any new growth on the scions, we concluded that we’d failed spectacularly, talked to the owners of the apple orchard as to what might have gone wrong (one key thing we didn’t do? cut down the scion lengths upon grafting them in), and resolved to try again next year.
Well, last week, Matt called me over to the trees to have a look. There, lo and behold, a whole TWO scions had somehow taken, and were now leafing out and binding themselves to the tree. Sure, it’s only an 8% success rate, but we’ll take that over 0% any day!
In April, we bought six baby chicks of six different varieties. Most of the chicks were sexed (meaning that the store knew with relative certainty that they were selling us hens) except for one—our fluffy Silky chick, which was a “straight run” (which means that you take a 50/50 chance on getting a rooster). Well, Tiny (as the chick’s size suggested that as an obvious choice for a name) was perhaps smaller than the others, but that didn’t mean he was on the bottom of the pecking order. No, from the beginning, we had our suspicions that Tiny was a rooster—he would aggressively peck the hens twice his size in the eyes, push his way forward to get at the food, and then, one day, after making several sounds that made me think a cat was strangling him, he definitely let out an unmistakable crow—
And then kept on crowing.
At all hours. All day long.
It got to the point I was getting a little worried about it, even though the chickens were being kept in the garage at the time. I mean, we knew the noise was bad when one of the neighbor kids asked me one day while I was out for a walk, “Hey, do you guys have a ROOSTER?”
So we knew Tiny had to go.
We wanted Tiny on a neighboring farm or homestead if at all possible, but none of our attempts ended up panning out. So, we ended up giving Tiny back to the IFA where we’d bought him, where (presumably) they’d resell him to a family who actually wanted a rooster.
It was surprisingly hard to say goodbye. I’d complained about Tiny’s crowing for weeks, but seeing how sad my husband was to give him up–that man has the softest spot for animals, especially animals in his care–and how much my oldest daughter needed to talk it through to process the event, it ended up being a tougher day than expected (just a sign that we have a LONG way to go if we’re ever going to become “real” homesteaders with a lot more animals than we have).
The Chickens On Their Thrones
But what about our four remaining hens? (In case you think I’ve done my math wrong, in addition to giving away Tiny, we lost one of the baby chicks near the beginning, which actually ended up being a bit traumatic as it literally died in my hand.)
Well, after semi-patiently putting up with their small enclosure in the garage (which they learned they could fly out of near the end, necessitating that we keep our garage door continually shut), Matt finally finished The Chicken Palace in September and thanks to some neighbors who have legit farming/ranching experience (and who were smart enough to know that we needed some basic moving equipment), we were able to move the gigantic (and HEAVY) coop to its permanent location behind our small shed.
Then, a couple nights later (after Matt had prepped the space with pine shavings and food and water and such), Matt carried the hens one by one into their new home, where they seemed outright bewildered, all huddled together and looking at us with uncertain eyes. We weren’t that surprised—after spending basically the entirety of their lives in a store, in our kitchen in a plastic bin, or in our garage in a makeshift coop, they’d had limited exposure to the outside world (not to mention the abundance of so much space). However, as they learned they could scratch and peck at the lingering weeds in the dirt beneath their feet and that there was a ramp they could climb up and down at will to go into their brooder, they warmed up quickly. And it only took one time of Matt showing them to go in to the brooder at night (and out again the next morning) for them now to do it on cue in an orderly line.
This last week, we also started letting them out to free range in the backyard (with ample supervision for now, as we don’t know if they’ll ruin our raised garden beds or if the neighborhood cats that all like to hang out in our backyard will try and attack them), which they’re definitely warming up to more and more. They still like us to be out there with them (and will venture out much farther if we’re out there), but I think they’ll get used to the freedom soon enough.
Lastly, although they’re just about six months old, they still haven’t produced a single egg. We know it can take awhile to adjust to new surroundings–so right now we’re blaming it on that–but if they haven’t started in a couple weeks, well…we’ll have to start looking further into the matter. Because as much as I like having chickens out there for entertainment and for making me feel all rustic and country-like, I really only agreed to get them because I want the eggs. #keepinitreal
As I said earlier, I love it when homesteaders (or wannabe homesteaders like us) post their real numbers so I can actually see what the real cost is of trying to live off the land and provide for yourself as much as possible. So in this series, I’ll try to keep tabs on what we’ve spent on various things so that you can get a good idea of the cost layout. (Note: Some of the links below to products we’ve bought are affiliate links.)
As I only just got the idea to start doing this blog series, these numbers only reflect expenses of the past couple months or so, and I did have to lump items together since I didn’t keep the receipts. (Also, I linked up to the actual product when I could, aka, when I actually knew what it was.) In future posts, I’ll try to be better about having more specific costs/items.
The Chicken Palace
- Shiplap – free
- Matt scored a big load when a local building was being torn down and the crew was just going to chuck it
- Pavers (to put underneath coop) – free
- We found a huge stock of free pavers on a local classified that provided enough for us to put underneath the wood frame before we placed the coop (so that the wood wouldn’t rot as quickly by touching the wet dirt)
- Hardware Cloth – $63.95
- Metal Roofing – $65 (approx)
- Hardware, Wood, Misc. – $198 (approx)
- Much of our wood we sourced for free, and we got some of the hardware for free by scouring local classifieds for free castoffs, such as a large wooden trunk that we were able to use the hinges and hardware from. However, we still had to buy a lot of nails, staples, plywood, planks, hinges, locks, etc., which is why this added up so quickly.
- Chicken Feed + Larger Chicken Feeder + Wood Chips = $65 (approx)
Total Spent on Chicken Coop + Chicken Feed/Wood Chips/Etc. from May – September = $392
- 36″ Pickax – $42.18
- This was my super romantic birthday gift for Matt’s birthday last month, and we’re both wondering how we survived so long (especially with our rocky soil) without it. Seriously, this might be some of the best money we’ve spent thus far.
- Tulip Bulbs – $8
- We got about 16 high-quality Dutch bulbs for our front gardens from our local nursery.
- Bloomed-Out Perennials (clearance) – $22.47
- Our local nursery does this fabulous deal at season’s end when you can get bloomed-out perennials in gallon-sized pots for usually $3 apiece. We took advantage of the same sale last year and loved seeing it all bloom for the first time this year, so we bought about 7 more to keep filling in the bare patches in our garden. Our haul included a couple pots of columbine, some primroses, and some more daylilies, among other things.
- Other Perennials – free
- Our friends are doing some pretty big renovations to their yard, which requires them getting rid of a LOT of the plants that have grown over the years. Thanks to them, we have significantly filled in more of our beds, including a big batch of Japanese Ivy and hollyhocks that we just transplanted this week.
Total Spent on Yard + Garden in August/September = $72.65
And that’s a wrap! What would YOU like to see me include in this series?
P. S. If you liked this post, you’d probably also like this post about what we’re doing NOW to start our homestead in the suburbs.