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.

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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!

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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

The Power of Native Plants – Photo Diary

Pineallple Welcome sign USE        Welcome to our flower garden!

It’s been a very dry summer at the Small House Homestead; our lawn is parched browns and yet today our homestead is being blessed by a life-giving rain. Our thirsty garden and property is soaking up this lovely rain water while our water containment totes are gathering additional water for our autumn transplanting. Thank you Rain Gods!

Pool shack back and burning bish USE FIRST

Grasses, hosta’s and a non-native burning bush behind the pool shack.

SW Michigan is often droughty in late summer and it is for this very reason that I plan mostly native plants. One of the best thing about native plants and grasses is that once established they don’t need much additional water to bloom and continue to look pretty all season long.

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Black Eyed Susan’s add a splash of color and seeds in the bird bed.

I have been watering our newly planted fruit trees every other day using a trickle hose to keep the roots wet but our grass has pretty much gone brown and dormant. It’s pretty ugly now but I know that this is temporary and our lawn will green up nice again when the autumn rain arrives.

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 Black eyed Susan’s in front of the meadow playhouse.

The blooming flowers pretty much make up for the unpleasant brown grass as the meadow and the blooms of the native plants are absolutely outstanding right now. It’s hard to imaging the grass being so ugly and the garden flowers being so beautiful but that’s the power of natives!

Pool fencing long shot with black Eye Susans

Ornamental grasses and native obscure the required metal chain link fence around the pool.

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Native plants, ornamental grasses and burn out lawn at the meadow.

North Tree line and Black eyed Susans

Some color peeks out at the hardwood forest tree line.

I leave some of our native flowers and ornamental grasses standing in the garden leaving the seeds for the song bird to  eat. And others, like our many brown eyed Susan’s, I let them stand until they have gone to seed. Then once the seed heads are dried and the seeds ready to fall out I cut off the seeds heads and stems and toss them into our ditch and other sunny areas where I want more plants to grow. Our brown eyed Susan’s are just the perfect native plant for easy seed spreading this way.

HORZ crabapple tree bed early a.m.A bed under the crabapple tree is filled with hosta’s, day lilies and Brown Eyed Susan’s.

I hope you enjoy this August Photo Diary of native plants and I hope that you too can bloom where you are planted!

Small House homesteader, Donna

Bark Chips, Field Stones and Lupines, Oh My!

Yesterday we had a family graduation in town. Our “adopted” nephew Mathew graduated from his Christian high school and we were celebrating.

Group house in rer USE

Native lupines shine at the Small House Homestead

While we were in the area, I picked up my two special ordered flats of native Lupines from Hidden  Savannah Nursery. One of my favorite nurseries, this place specialized in native plants. My favorite kind!

The ideal would have been to come right home and plant like a banshee because rain was predicted for the following day but I was just too tired. I’d been up working in the garden and with the chicken since 5 a.m. and then on the road by noon. But I was up and planting by first light today and planted about half of my new plants in the ground before the rain began.

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A close up show the pea like quality of our native lupines.

You may recall my earlier posting “In Love with Lupines” when I explained how I started planting native lupines n our property in 2009 after testing 40 plants that I bought from the same nursery through the Allegan County Extension plant sale.

Lupines in Saburu trunk USE

Lupine and tomatoes fill the truck of my Subaru this weekend.

Showy, elongated clusters of pea like flowers that tops the 1 to 2 ft. stems, this native perennial features blue, pea-like flowers in an upright, elongated terminal cluster on an erect stem. The blooming period is from late spring to early summer and last for about a month.

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Lovely lupines are definitely the star of the native plantings in our cottage -style garden.

Lupines grow best in sandy soil, in the full sun where the tall grasses and shrubs are minimal.  It is best to plant them while dormant in the spring or the fall.  I plant them with the buds 1” deep below the soils surface and space about 1 foot apart. I also like to plant in grouping of three for interest when in bloom.

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I recently extended the original bed filled with three White Pines, stones and lupines.

This plant was once thought to deplete the mineral content from the soil but actually the plant enhances the soil fertility by fixing atmospheric nitrogen into a useful form by and fixing it into the soil. They bloom blue or purple from April through July, depending on your geographic area and USDA zone.

Their growing conditions are sun, part sun, dry to moist sandy soil with an acidic pH of 6.8to 7.2. Very good drainage is needed but the plants are adaptable once established. It is considered a water-wise plant so planting Lupines offer beauty with water conservation efforts as well.

 

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This is the view that greets our guests and family as they pull into our pole barn driveway.

This plant attacks butterflies and hummingbirds and is the larval host for the Karen Blue butterfly that is a protected species. This plant is also of special value to native bees. And bumble bees.

This is propagated from dry treated seeds in the spring. Does not transplant well due to its long, tap-root. The lupine is tricky to propagate as the seeds must be scarified, inoculated and then needs moist stratification for 10 days. Soil should be inoculated before sowing the seeds.

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I buy my lupines in cells from a native plant propagator.

This is a plant has very few if any pest problems associated with it.

I live on the edge of a sandy oak savannah forest parcel called The Allegan Forest and I happen to have the right soil conditions for this plant. Because of stabilized sand dunes and power line clearance in sandy area this is becoming a rare and uncommon plant in many places. Lupines and leaves in the landscapeField stones, bark chips and lupines…oh my!

I have a dream of a front yard overflowing with gorgeous masses of purple lupines. Each year I add a flat or two to my garden and many seeds blow, re-seed and pop up throughout our property much to my delight.

4 panels lupines jpeg 2015 BEST joeg

Everybody loves lupines!

Small House homesteader and gardener, Donna

Greenhouse Hoops Repurposed as Chicken Run Frame

Our Cochins hens love to fly!

Tie wrapping USE

The open chicken run is now covered with deer netting to keep the girls in.

When I look out the kitchen or dining room window to check on our hens, inevitably I find them out of their pen scratching in the mulch around our oak trees or heading across the yard to heaven knows where. These girls are always on the move.

Not only do I worry about stray dogs as day-time predator (or even our own Lab Sassy forgetting her lessons.) An avid gardener, I have nicely mulched garden beds that need protecting too. So I really want to keep the girls in their pen areas.

Sassy looking

Sassy is being trained to “leave it.”

Our chickens have a series of three “pastures” each with a mix of leaves, grass and weeds to wander around in of their own free will so they really are not hurting for places to scratch and peck. They have shade and sun and a covered coop so no matter the weather they can be contained and protected.

But they also have a kind of wanderlust and like to fly over our 4 ft. tall chicken wire fence for evidently what they think are “greener pastures!”

Hoop run step 2 from Noth view

Stage two of the covered chicken run project. Our Cochins are in the lower right hand corner of this photo.

After months of rounding up and collecting birds five, seven or nine times a day I began to think about covering the open run permanently or clipping their wings. I made the decision early on to not clip their wings because I do want them to be able to fly away in case a predator should come to dinner.

Instead I scoured the Internet and then Pinterest for low-cost covered coop and run ideas until I found one that incorporated metal greenhouse hoops as a frame covered with netting. Bingo!

It turns out that we already have 7 metal greenhouse hoops stacked behind our pole barn that we purchased from a garden club a few years ago for just a $20.00 donation. At that time I had hoped we might build a small hoop-house here. But there was always so many projects waiting that this greenhouse just never got built.

There was my answer…using the greenhouse hoops as a frame for a covered chicken run.

Pool shack side

An east facing shows the block with the hoops inserted into the holes.

This was really simple to achieve. We bought 10 cement blocks, each one weighing 36 lbs., at just about $1.00 each and inserted the hoops into them. We plan to add pea gravel to help to hold the hoops in the block but they already seems to be quite sturdy to me.

Initially we thought we would use bird netting as the cover but then we had a tip on a shade cloth from a local garden center.  Unfortunately that shade cloth was too large for our hoops so it was back to plan A; Using deer netting  secured to the hoops using plastic tie wraps.

Hoop Dimensions:

Our hoops are 8 ft. in length from pole end to pole end.

Our Covered Run Is:

  1. 18 ft. length
  2. 14 ft. 2” width
  3. Hoops are 86” tall

Deer Netting:

100 ft. long.

Today Gene used a $20.00 bag of deer netting and cut and fit the netting around the hoops using tie wraps to connect the netting to the metal hoops. Covering the three gates was a bit trickier to figure out but eventually he just cut panels and weighted them with a repurposed wooden and metal poles that I will lift and open when I go in and out of the gate.

Less than one days work and only $50.00 in cost. What a happy day this is!

Small House homesteader and chicken keeper, Donna

 

Our Homesteads Native Plant Ecosystem

I get asked a lot of questions about our gardens here on the homestead, especially when folks find out we are a Back to Eden Garden. This means we subscribe to using bark chips as mulch and to grow our flowers and vegetable here.

White daisy's bunch

White daisy’s, a pass-along-plant grows in our meadow border. This is a plant given to me by my neighbor.

In fact, I spend a lot of my day in my gardens these days and every year I add more and more beds and plants. I adore working in and sharing my gardens with others.

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The view from our three season porch; sidewalk and bird feeding bed.

As you know, most plants thrive in well-drained soil. But if your soil is sandy and lean like ours is then too much draining can become an over-kill. Water and nutrients also run through it quickly and plants have a hard time surviving in this kind of environment. Fortunately, there’s a fix for turning this barren soil into a thriving garden.

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Our first native lupine bed in front of the brick raised bed. Perennial candytuft and lupines flowers about the same time.

When we moved to the Small House Homestead in 2000, my dream was to garden on a big scale. I came from a small city lot though compact and wonderfully shaded it also came with clay soil. Too many plants drowned there for my comfort level and I was not yet a point where I had the time to devote to my gardens.

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The view from the bird feeding bed back towards the house and porch.

What I really longed for was lots of colorful flowers, ornamental grasses, flowering shrubs, evergreens and organic vegetables and I looked so forward to getting my hands into the land where the sun shined everywhere.

garden back of porch chartreuse and porch

A low garden behind our porch allows us to look out over our property and enjoy the birds.

Once I began to dig, what I found was very lean, very sandy oak savannah soil. This acid soil was not idea for growing anything but oak and pine trees. They don’t call this ecology the oak and pine barrens for nothing!

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First a fenced in vegetable garden and now an open chicken run.

Sandy soil has its pro’s and con-s but it can be easily amended and improved. I knew I had my work cut out for me I know, but I was strong and optimistic.

Front sidewalk from limestone bench

Front of home sidewalk with shrubs, catmint and saliva in pea gravel.

I started by testing our soil to find out it was a base 7.0 Then I began to seriously amend it to make more loam to hold in the water and nutrients I was also adding.

Bird bed stone edge w flowes NICE

Our country garden beds are edged in found fields stones I have gathered.

I began to make homemade compost using kitchen scraps, grass trimmings and more. Then I bought mushroom compost and more recently found a source for free well compost horse manure. Now I use a combination of them all with bark chips mulch on top to hold in the moisture and keep out some of the weeds. This is a winning combination for us here!

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fall blooming clematis at our front door adds beauty and a sweet smell.

Gradually over the past 14 years our gardens have grown as have my skills and knowledge. I’ve made some mistakes for sure but I am known as the crazy gardening lady in my community and I can live with that!

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A metal gate in our repurposed railroad tie herb bed adds visual interest.

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A row of ornamental grasses hides a metal chain link fence around the pool at the pool shack with our wildflower meadow behind it.

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My granddaughters playhouse in the meadow garden edge.

Small House Homesteader and gardener Donna

Early Spring on the Small House Homestead

I think early spring has finally arrived in the Oak Savannah forest of SW Michigan. We still have small piles of snow in places because the woods holds in the cold and snow long past the warmer land in the city but we have more ground showing than snow now. Our days are warming up into the 50’s and the daffodils and day lilies are peeking their heads through the soil.

Bench and woods USE first

A bench in the woods offers a bit of solitude behind our homestead.

March came in and went out like a lion in my part of the country this year! How about yours? The clocks tick on, the seasons change and another Michigan spring begins.

Studio - low raised gardens USE

Raised beds and a path next to the native flower meadow lead to my art studio.

Today Sassy and I took a walk through our property and through the neighbor’s 20 acre wood behind us. We are blessed to be able to walk in those woods and in return we try to give back by picking up sticks that fall on the pathway and put our massive amounts of oak leaves on the trails to keep down some of the briars and to keep the paths walkable.

Pole barn entrance garden uSE

The flower bed sidewalk side entrance to our ranch-style bungalow home.

The birds in the tree top are singing all day now. And Mr. Blue, after two weeks of constant “advertising,” has found his mate. I saw two flashes of blue yesterday as they flew by and lit on the pool shack, one of their favorite perches. We have three bluebird houses out for them and inevitably they choose the one behind the pool shack in the meadow for their early, first nesting. The meadow flowers have not yet grown tall and apparently that nest box is in the full sun, which they like for cold spring rains and sudden cold snaps.

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Shallow raised beds in the vegetable garden alongside our metal pole barn.

The woods are almost quiet now; no hunters, no snowmobiles and no hikers. Just the migrating birds on their way to their nesting grounds looking for a territory. We hear the Sandhill Cranes whooping as they fly over us way above the tree tops and sometimes in the marshes around us. After fourteen years of prowling these woods around us we know the special places the Sandhill Cranes like to feed, veg and nest and some days we scout them to quietly observe their behavior.

HOR Barn USE

Our pole barn sits under the white pines and oaks next to the wooded portion of our land.

It’s almost time for us to start our waterfowl and woodcock watching too. We like to drive into the woods at dusk to some special marshes we have found in the Allegan Forest. We like to watch and listen to the waterfowl come in for the night. We hear Geese, Sandhill Cranes, Wood Ducks, blue and green wing Teal and more, whistling, chortling and clucking.

HOR porch bed with studio USE

The garden bed alongside and behind out three seasons porch is not yet awake for the 2015 season.

Gene’s years of waterfowl hunting has taught him to identify hundreds of birds by sight and sound and he in turn has taught me. We are now teaching our almost six-year-old granddaughter Brenna about the birds we find here. Gene has given her part of his collection of bird calls for Owls, Ducks and Geese and I gave her a bird identification book and she is learning to love the birds as much as we do. When she visits she helps us put feed into the feeders and we identify them from our dining room window. The birds are finding her way into her coloring and birthday cards, much to our delight. We have found that birding is a lifelong hobby that brings such pleasure over the years no matter the physical capabilities of a person or not.

Diaganol pool shack-fence USE

The pool shack garden is also asleep and waiting for the sunshine.

It was almost anticlimactic after weeks of work on fencing and gates but today I turned the chickens out into the raspberry pasture this morning. I was happy to be able to walk away and not worry (well mostly not worry) about them. They are busy scratching and pecking in the leaves finding worms. I’ll be keeping my eyes on them through our windows but they no longer have to have constant physical supervision freeing me up for other chores and activities. Yea!

Bluebird house USE

The bluebird house sits in the meadow awaiting the first bluebird family.

Screendoor USE

The painted screen door on the back of the pool shack.

Small House Homesteader and chicken keeper, Donna

Monday-Fun-Day… Going into Town Day

Monday is our going into town day. Anyone who lives rurally, homesteading or not, understands what going into town for the day means. This means a long list of errands in hand – and a long day on the road getting them done.

images[10]  Vintage restored store front in South Haven, Michigan.   

This is something that those who long to homestead in a rural place need to understand up front. Now while it can be fun to go to town and see people again, it also means chores do not get done that day or they get done later in the day after everything is done too. And a long day on the road is exhausting when you are our age.

Lighhouse

The South Haven Lighthouse on lake Michigan.

I come home and start putting away groceries, throw in a load of wash and start our next meal. Gene, at age 70, goes and lies down and takes a nap!

Monday is our yoga day. This is the day we also run our errands, buy our groceries, have lunch with our friends and generally get things accomplished. It also means “Shopping Locally.” Something that is very important to me as a life-long small business owner. For most of my adulthood, I asked people to buy products and services from me, so in return I now buy from them.  Fair is fair.

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A stained glass window at the Church where we take our yoga class.

This week going into town meant, a trip to Tractor Supply to buy Grower Feed and red heat lights for the anticipated Rhode Island Red chicks that are arriving on April 20th, checking out a stack of books from the library, stopping in to the local health food store to buy 5 lbs. of raw honey, filling up the car with gas and, because the day was sunny and warmish, popping into the local dollar car wash and hosing off the salt from the Subaru.

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A downtown mural honors the fruits and vegetable heritage of this rural area.

Some homesteaders and ranchers I know drive 6 miles just to get to the mailbox, while others make three hours trip to town. We drive just 20 minutes to and from but it might as well be across the island bridge for what it takes out of us.

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Another downtown view of quaint small town South Haven, Michigan.

When I made a commitment to the Earth to protect its dwindling natural resources, I made a serious commitment to driving less. I committed to using just one tank of gas a month. For me that mean just two trips out of my pole barn a week. Once trip is to go to town on Mondays and the second one is on Tuesday when I drive about 10 miles each way to a volunteer to feed the horses. That’s it for me.

Monthly we also throw in there a month to the big city…which for us is Holland, MI, a 45 minutes’ drive for us along the lakeshore. This day mean visiting the feed store, a doctors or dentist visit, a trip to Sam’s Club, managing repairs, or meeting our granddaughter half way for lunch and a play date. That is always another long day on the road. Thank goodness it is only every month or two. (Not the granddaughter parts just the errand part as I’d take her every weekend if I could!)

I imagine this is unusual in this day and age and I still have trouble with my husband agreeing to this as he is much more of a goer than I. He drives out every day in his truck to run our Labrador in the Allegan Forest or at the Todd Farm Sanctuary. And, twice a week he drive’s into South Haven  for his part-time work at Menard’s. In the old days he was running to and from the mall, the church and friend’s houses and every weekend he drove Up North to Baldwin to camp and fish.

.Apparently he is more social that I am! It’s just that he is not as committed to fewer less fossil fuel than I am. He a good man, but he just has a bit more trouble sublimating his “wants” in order to meet a moral or ethical goal that means something to me.

I guess I am a much more stay a home person than he is. I admit that in the early years it has been a challenge but I have trained myself to be more content here at home.  And I am glad of that now.

When we moved here we basically created a place with everything that we needed; our work, my art studio, Gene’s blacksmith forge our land, swimming pool and gardens. We have our Labrador Sassy, my chickens, trails in our woods to walk in and the Allegan Forest not 10 miles away from our backdoor.

Besides our health and each other, we really do not need much more.

Small House Homesteader, Donna