The Spring Rush 2016

This is the time of year we call “The Spring Rush.” What this means is we have a LOT of outdoor getting ready for the gardening season work going on around the homestead and we are super busy as a result.

This week I have been cleaning up my flower beds; removing leaves, weeding and putting down bark chips. I put organic fertilizer on the flowering shrubs that are planted in the pea gravel around our home. I prefer to use homemade compost in the fall on the plants in the dirt beds, but have the best luck with organic fertilizer in the stones beds in the spring. Putting big buckets of dirt on top of the tidy pea gravel mulch would be counter-productive in my opinion.

Gene removed the pink foam insulation in the roofs of both of the chicken coops and got out our five birdbaths. We also put out the tropical plant in a pot that hides the ugly air conditioner on the front of our home that we store in our laundry room crawl space over the winter.

I sprayed the pink bench and the vintage record stand that will eventually hold flowers for a la flea market look for flowers this summer.

I also bought a flat of basil “starts” this week for lots of tasty fresh cooking and air drying. Each sunny day  bring them out into the sun to grow some more and at night put them into the pole barn in case of a light frost.

Last year I planted 12 starts and had delicious fresh and dried basil until February. This year I bought 15 starts in the hope I can dry even more. I have the best luck with my basil plants planted in pots using well composted horse manure so I will use this system again this year as well.

There is a lot of washing and line drying happening around here right now as well, after all it is spring!

Small House homesteader, Donna

P.S. Please note that I have apparently used up my space limit for photographs on my blog. I am not sure what I plan to do. To increase my space requires a commitment of $24.95 per month and I am not sure I am willing to do that. So posts may be without photographs for a bit.

Small Houses’ Tiny Role in Preserving the Savanna Forest

We spent as much time outside as possible during our recent February thaw. The sunshine felt wonderful on my skin and the warm weather made a partial clean-up of the yard possible.

Oak tree close with chickens USE

Our small parcel of the Oak Savannas forest with compost bins in the distance.

When you live under the shelter of forty-seven White Oak trees you end up with a lot of sticks blown down in the yard that need to be picked up come spring. One record spring I collected twelve garden carts full of sticks and twigs!

Rhoide close comb backlit USE

One of our Rhodies enjoying her time in the forest edge.

So I am always happy to have the opportunity to get outside during the winter months and do a bit of pre-spring yard clean up.

Snowball close

Snowball the Bantam Cochin like all chickens loves to scratch in the leaves.

Have I recently  mentioned that our land was once part of the Oak Savanna Forest?

This italics piece below was written by the author of the Lillie House Blog. Lillie House is an urban permaculture garden in Kalamazoo, Michigan. You can see the post about the history of the savannah in its entirety at Lillie House : How We Save the Savannas

And most magnificent of all the ecosystems in the new Americas was the savannas. These large parcels of land were once common across the region where the Eastern Woodland receded into western prairie.Chickens in wood compost in background

Our chickens free ranging along the path into the forest.

Just as we call the prairies “grasslands,” these savannas were “flowerlands,” glorious with a great bounty of broadleaf plants that provide medicine, food and forage. These special ecosystems are the preferred environment of many species, the only place where some can thrive. No doubt it was also home to undiscovered, lost soil communities that we had not yet begun to understand when we brought with us a vast, yet tiny army of invisible conquistadors to colonize the kingdom under foot. 

Oak Savvanah with flowers underneath
 Photo credit: Lillie House Blog Spot.
Within ten years of “settlement” by Europeans, these ecosystems were transformed. The open woodlands filled in to thick forest, prairies and savannas turned to cane thickets and old field, and eventually forest. This once open, park-like continent transformed to just another dense European thicket, and the North American miracle was never to be seen again.

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One of the remaining stands of native lupines in the State Game Area.

One large 50,000 acre parcel the Allegan State game Area was preserved by officials for its recreational use for campers, snowmobilers, cross-country skiers, horse trail riders and hunters and due to the prevalent native lupines that grow there. These beautiful lupines are the host plant for the protected Karner blue butterflies.

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Spring in the forest with native Lupines providing the color.

The chickens had a blast being out of their run. They walked, scratch and pecked for hours every day.  We feel most comfortable supervising the chickens when they free range outside of their fenced in runs.

Rhodie head up studio in rear USE

The forest edge creates a lovely back-drop to our property as well as wind break.

I have tried to preserve the trees on our land and to plant native plantings as well as the many native Lupines as I could plant. I have maintained and played steward on this property as best that I can in the fifteen years we have lived here. We have work hard to preserve and protect this unique ecosystem and add to it as we can.

The weather report indicated that a big storm is headed our way later this week and predicting 5″ to 8″ of fresh snow. So I have been picking up as many sticks as I could and letting the chicken out for several hours a day. Apparently this lovely thaw is about to end!

Oh and the bluebird are coming back…we saw two males looking for their breeding territories earlier this week! I’ll keep you posted!

Small House homesteader, Donna

Making Hay While the Sun Shines

You know the old saying…”Got to make hay while the sun is shining.” Today that what we did. No, we did not actually make hay, it’s November. But we are in a three or four-day warm up period and we are hustling to get the last of the seasonal work done while the sun is shining. Knowing Michigan like I do, I am figuring that this is the last warm up of the 2015 season.

Scarecrow under oak no leaves USE FIRST

The White Oak trees have lost their leaves and quite early this year.

I stripped the bed and washed the sheets and mattress pad and put the pillows out in the sunshine to air out. Having been sick with bronchitis I feel an extra strong to air out those pillows. The same with the dog’s bed. I can’t prove that sunshine helps to sterilize our bedding but it sure makes me feel better knowing they were out there baking in the warm sunshine for the day.

Rhodies and foge good USE

Two Rhodies free ranges in the leaves behind the blacksmith forge.

I have also been planning on emptying, sterilizing and thoroughly washing out the chickens feeders before the long winter ahead. So today I finally got to that chore too. I did one hanging metal feeder today and I will do another one tomorrow. Hopefully Thursday will be warm and sunny as well and I can washout the third one and that chore will be accomplished.

Chrystal on Rhodies roost bar

Crystal rests on the roost in our warm Indian Summer we are experiencing.

Gene is spending his day draining and putting the hoses away and tackling our big leaf pick up chores. Last week he raked enough leaves to fill up the our three chicken runs with dry oak leaves as well as five large Menard’s leaf bag with leaves to use as coop bedding this winter.

Wire bin from woods studio in distance USE

The compost bin for heavier and thicker materials like ornamental grasses.

Today he is sucking more oak leaves out of the stone landscape bed around our Ranch-style home. The next two days will be saved for blowing and leaf pickup with the lawn tractor. The oaks have pretty much dropped all of their leaves and we are under the gun to get the picked up and distributed on the wood path, along the landscaping beds, in the meadow and so on. He says we did not have nearly as many leaves as we have most summers. By the end of this week  that it is supposed to turn cold and to rain heavily. We are praying we can get these final chores done by then. Wish us luck!!

Amerigas truck delivery 11-15

Even the Amerigas LP company is working to beat the clock of s-n-o-w!

This is the first year the oak branches have been empty of leaves by November 2 – that is VERY early for us here in SW Michigan.

trees forground building in rear

The owl box is up and ready for the schreechers.

Small House homesteader, Donna

The Small House in its Autumn Glory-Photo Diary

I apologize for being so out of touch lately. Fall is such a busy time of year for us at The Small House that the outdoor work just takes over our lives. Hopefully I can make up for fewer blog posts of late with some interesting and lively photographs sharing the beauty of our homestead in the autumn.

We’ve had a hard frost already here in SW Michigan. Hard enough that it froze my remaining potted annuals and tender hydrangeas but once again the weather has turned warm. In these parts we call these warm days, our Indian Summer. I am enjoying the warm sunshine as are our animals who love to lay in the warm dirt and dust or nap.

Small House under bog tree USE

Our small house under the big SW Michigan sky. 

The surrounding woods are taking on new shades of reds, yellow and amber thanks to the cooler nights. There is a vivid beauty about the countryside now that stirs my soul.

HORZ turn around coop in rear USE

This bed, with its ornamental grasses and mum’s really shines in the Autumn.

As those of you who homestead know; this time of is year we call “The Crunch Time” or “The Fall Rush.” I imagine that you are working as hard as we are to gather the last of the vegetable harvest, to close down the gardens and get the animals and their pens ready for winter. These seasonal chores plus my plantar fasciitis, physical therapy and various doctor’s appointments have kept me on the run.

While I honestly prefer a more home-center, slower-paced way of life, I know I must take care of my health right now and that means many appointments in town and twice-weekly working out.

Mums foreground trellis grasses USE VERT

The billowing and blowing grasses are among my favorite native perennials.

The fruits of our labor can be enjoyed in our perennial gardens right now. Native perennial plant, stones hauled home from farmers fields and roadside ditches, mingle with my carefully chosen plantings and projects all lovingly built and maintained, that shine during the Michigan fall. I enjoy every season here but if I had to choose my favorite, I think it would be autumn.

Fencegate raspberries USE

The fenced-in black raspberry patch is one of our chicken’s favorite runs.

Here is a peek at the Small House Homestead this week in all of our lovely fall glory.

Bird grden shrub and birdfeeder USE

Shrubs and feeders provide food and shelter for our beloved songbirds.

Fence and pool shack USE

Our non-working in-the-ground pool resides nestles up against the forest edge.

Gene cart Rhodies on straw USE

Bales of hay will block the winter winds to the chicken run and coop areas. Then next spring these bales will be broken down for mulch in the garden.

Pole barn under sky USEThe chicken condo complex is nestled under our majestic White Oak trees.

Meadow nice USE

The pool shack, meadow grasses and the wood lot in late October.  

North west side of house with hydragneas geen

Our 1950’s era ranch-style home. Yes, that is an old-fashioned TV antenna not a UFO!

Pool shack fall USE

The pool shack storage shed with our home in the distance.

Fence and pool shack USE

The pool complex, storage shack and garden.

I hope you enjoyed you enjoyed a taste of fall on our homestead.

Small House homesteader, Donna

The Joys and the Struggles of Homesteading

Gene and I have been homesteaders now for 15 years. I can say without a doubt from our in-depth, first-hand experience; homesteading brings both tremendous joys and struggles. This is a definitely a life-style choice that is not for the faint of heart.

Fully flowered mailbox July great USE

Our homesteads mailbox in summer.

There is often a thick vein of “romance” running through the many practical needs associated with homesteading. People think most often of the being their own boss; the freedom of no more 9 to 5 grind, sleeping in everyday and no commute or punching the clock to make it to work in the morning.

Barn front and long side NICE

Another summer view of our pole barn, gravel drive way and barn garden.

The prevalent view is that homesteading is about “simple living” but there is nothing remotely simple or romantic about homesteading. The hard truth is, homesteading, like farming, has never been easy.

Not a simple life; there is a seasonal rhythm and an order to this life that I love.

Fall House front blue sky

A November view of the homestead after the White Oak leaves have fallen.

We work harder here than we ever did in our city jobs. This is hard physical labor that causes our joints and our muscles to hurt as well as our feet. We rise earlier and work later. We earn no paid vacation, no insurance or traditional benefits and yet, for now, I cannot see us doing anything else.

Because we are aging, I know that in the near future we will turn the stewardship of this place over to another family. I pray that is a young couple who desire to homestead and who value the accomplishments we have made here during our tenure. It is my hope that their youth and skills can take our home and property to the next level. There is room to building a sturdy shed and fencing in the empty meadow which would be perfect for miniature goats. There is land for more fruit trees too and more home-grown food.

Long view of garden and barn

Side view of our fenced in vegetable garden and raspberry patch/chicken run.

We have experienced multiple challenges while living here. We had the serious challenge of flooding that killed our original fruit orchard, removed our soil from the vegetable gardens and took its toll on our belongings. But no matter what life or the weather throws at us life on the homestead goes on.

We have had several unplanned set-backs and jaw-dropping expenses like the failing septic and drain field just three months after we moved in. Or the stressful and unplanned $10,000 flood extension assessment that forced us to leave retirement and take minimum wage city jobs for the years it took us to earn the cash we needed.

Injuries too are always a fear because then I know then we could not manage the daily or seasonal work. At our advancing age surgery and illness are always in the back of our minds. We have to bring in the harvest in spite of being laid up and no matter what happens to us, there are animals to feed and we have to get the work done.

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Flood water surrounded the Small House.

 

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Flooding on the gravel road behind our property.

Unless you are wealthy and can pay hired help, homesteading is in reality a long 12-hour day with very few days off to play. Homesteading can be lonely, isolating and means never-ending work. Homesteading is also a labor of love that takes strength, stamina, perseverance and guts. We have learned there is a feeling of pride in our capacity for survival even through the hardest of times.

Chicken Run from barn USE

Our chicken coop and run in dryer more recent days.

Then why did we choose this life?

Meadow light color

The beauty of our meadow edge.

On the flip side of the struggle, there is being the master of your own fate and the joys that brings. No office job can satisfy in the same way the growing of your own wholesome food or managing your land in positive ways. These are satisfactions that do not have to translate into money.

There is a great fulfillment in starting with basically nothing but the land and making something of that. We get to work outside, with our hands, to watch the birds, the trees and the sky as the seasons change. There is a daily beauty in a  life of non-monetary abundance that is hard to put into words.

Bench set up with milk NICE

We choose homesteading because we wanted to have more control over the food we eat. We wanted outdoors work, to create with our hands and to keep chickens and large dogs. Gene wanted to blacksmith and I wanted create works of art from the handmade paper that I fashioned from the plants I grew. I wanted to live a life of conservation, to be more sustainable and provide a first-hand example to my children and grandchildren that they might not otherwise see I this modern and material world.

omfrey close chicken run in rear

The bottom line is that in homesteading you learn new skills and you learn to rely on your wits and your own grit and no one but you are responsible for your success or your failure.

I hear from many people who tell me this is what they want to have. Knowing the hardships… is this still the life for you?

Small House homesteader, Donna

Update on the Small House Fruit Tree Inoculation

If you have been reading this blog for very long you probably know that our fruit orchard was all but wiped out by the 2009-2012 high ground water flooding we experienced. After getting over the stress and shock of those terrible four springs when we thought we were going to lose our home to either flooding or mold. And we did lose much of our painstakingly built up soil and then like many farmers who have experienced such loss, we set about shaking off the crisis and replanting.

USE FIRST PEACH and comfrey

Our peach tree with its comfrey guild below.

We replanted in the spring of 2015 using a mix of three nursery bought pears and peaches trees and three grafted heirloom apples from South meadow Fruit Gardens located in Benton Harbor about an hour’s drive from us.

Email smfruit@aol.com

I had never used grafted stock before and I wanted to hedge my success by planting three years old Jonkers Garden Center bought trees as well and the one-year-old specialty grafted tree stock from Southmeadow Fruit Gardens.

Tree triangle dirt only

The large triangle bed in the very early spring after we dug up the sod.

Following the advice of Michael Phillips, author of The Holistic Orchard: Tree Fruit and Berries the Biological Way. At his recommendation we dug up a large section of grass in a large triangle shape and planted the trees 8 ft. apart.

I worked hard to improve my lean oak savannah forest soil by adding well composted horse manure mixed in with hay and covered in bark chips. his is the secret recipe to growing anything here.

Comfrey and lupines USE

Sterile Russian comfrey, native lupines and ramial bark chips as mulch.

The plan was to plant comfrey under each tree at the root line which we did. I ordered 58 slips of Russian comfrey at $1.00 each and they have grown beautifully and flowered quite well their first summer. The delicate blue comfrey flowers call out to the bumble bees who come and take home their yellow pollen.

The Holistic Orchard book front

Using permaculture terms, we planted a “fruit guild” with our White Oak trees for the top layer, the fruit trees for the middle layer and nitrogen-fixing plants like comfrey, native lupines, daffodils and chives below. And then I added the best material of all; ramial wood chips as the main course for feeding mycorrhizal and saprophytic fungi in an orchard food web that in turn supports our fruit trees.

Fruit tree bed from a distance USE

This is a terrific book and one I highly recommend for anyone who wishes to grow fruit organically. You can locate this book by using this ISBN number; ISBN 978-1-933392-13-4.

I watered our fruit trees and comfrey faithfully all summer and they have gotten off to a good start. We plan to stake and fence in the triangle beds this fall to protect the tender fruit trees from deer, rabbit and any other browsers who might come along and decide they are a good-looking treat! We also feel that fencing and staking them will give us a good visual to work around this first year so we can avoid them in winter playtime, dog ball kicking and snow blowing paths to and from the pole barn.

A few weeks ago, at Phillips recommendation we drove into the state-owned Todd Farm Preserve located about 10 miles from the Small House homestead. We located the sight of several wild apple trees we have visited, and picked from in previous years. We dug up a couple of buckets of soil from under these trees and brought that soil home and “inoculated” our own fruit trees with that soil.

According to Phillips the purpose of inoculation is to both create an orchard soil that ideally contains a fungal presence ten time higher than that of bacteria and because the key to tree vitality is this nutrient exchange between the roots via these fungal helpers and the soil.

In a few weeks I will do a chop and drop of the comfrey leaves so they too can work their magic on the soil around the beds.

We are trying to be as biological as possible with our fruit trees and not spray or use chemicals in any way.

Small House Homesteader, Donna

My Piece in The New Pioneer Magazine Is Published

My article and three photographs about our rainwater catchments system has been published in The New Pioneer magazine, Summer issue 2015. I wrote about it first on my blog here https://smallhousebigskyhomestead.wordpress.com/2015/03/01/i-am-being-pub…

New Pioneer Cover Summer 2015

Although I have known about this since last winter when I received my acceptance, is always a thrill to open the magazine and find something you have created in it.

I like how they titled it Raincatcher System. Pretty cleaver huh?

This guide to self-reliant living is now available on newsstands everywhere. Since this is a niche market, I’d try Tractor Supply for a copy first. Or order it on-line at newpioneermag.com/-sub.biz/ This is a quarterly publication and sells for $24.97 for one years subscription.

Small House homesteader and freelance writer, Donna