Three days ago, I packed up all my wool blend socks, sweaters, long underwear, and winter boots.
I was feeling optimistic, and perhaps hoping that by taking this step I would help do my part to ensure that winter goes away for the year. I’ve been premature in my Spring-faith before – even just earlier this month a wet, heavy snow took out the gutter I’d eagerly reinstalled on the side of our high tunnel greenhouse, hoping to collect some early rainwater for the first high tunnel crops.
So I shouldn’t have been surprised when this cold snap hit – highs in the 30s, lows in the 20s. I just finished putting sheets and buckets over the raspberry canes, rhubarb, and asparagus, which are apparently just as foolishly optimistic as I.
But even with more snow and cold, it’s indubitably Spring, albeit USDA Zone 4a style. Nature’s signs are everywhere – the evening choruses of peepers have returned, the evil quack grass is lushly taunting me, we’ve had our first tick and mosquito bites, and the hungry black bears have begun their raids on the Neighbors’ birdhouses.
Robins are twitterpating, dandelions blooming, rhubarb and asparagus emerging from their subterranean winter slumber.
Human signs of Spring abound as well – we have the fence up around the field to defend against critters great and small, the loggers are back to ravaging the surround forests, and we joined the annual horde of scavengers to Bloomington’s Curbside Pickup days to get free materials for the farm.
The first big push of seeds are all done germinating, and have now moved out of the trailer (where we kept them toasty near our woodstove), and into the greenhouse.
In there, the seedlings get ample sunlight during the days, and the hot weather plants (peppers, tomatoes, etc) stay warm overnights on the rocket-heater-warmed clay bench (we’ve improved our firing routine such that they’re enjoying temperatures around 30 degrees warmer than outside, all night long).
The first rows were planted in the high tunnel a couple of weeks ago – reluctantly, since we discovered that rabbits have been partying in there through the nights, and we feared devastation … but a combination of scent deterrents, homemade hot pepper spray, and wire fencing seems to have moved them on to less hostile environments.
In the last couple of days, the first field plants went into the ground, ready to soak up the days of rain that followed – peas, salad mix, turnips, radishes.
In other news, we’ve doing lots of spring cleaning around the farm, building a larger screen porch in preparation for the annual mosquito blood- drive, clearing out a patch of large oak-wilted trees to make room to plant new fruit trees (and to make firewood of course), plugging new mushroom logs, using the chickens to break down our abundant piles of oak leaves for use in compost, and experimenting with controlled burns in the meadows and woods on the margins of the field.
We’ve battled quack grass, spotted a fisher (a giant weasel basically), cursed the insanely-intelligent voles … and sat inside on a chilly gray day and finished this webpage update for you.
Hope you, too, are enjoying this slow, beautiful transformation from winter to spring! Life is strange and beautiful, and the struggle is the joy … we’re grateful to have such lucky abundance, such interesting problems. and such folks as you in our lives. Thanks!
When we left our civilized city career lives, we set a goal of spending as little money as we could, rather than focusing on ways to make more money. Toward this end, we remain disconnected from the utility grid, eat mostly our farm-grown food, and save money on toilet paper by using tree bark.
OK, that last part was a lie.
(Although we actually did look into, but reject, mullein leaf TP at one point!)
But generally, wherever we reasonably can, we avoid shopping and stores – rather than make a purchase, we first consider getting by without it, or re-purposing something we already have (which is why a well-stocked “junk pile” is crucial).
We are blessed by our proximity to the Twin Cities, which seems to be one of the more active Craigslist urban areas in the country – and we’ve become pretty effective scavengers on it. As you may know, Craigslist has a “Free” section where people give things away. In many cities, this section is a ghost town populated primarily by unwanted kittens, scams, and people seeking freebies. But not Minneapolis.
If you’ve ever checked it out casually, you probably were not too impressed – lots of old TVs and couches, and if you did find something interesting and tried to make contact, it was already taken by someone else.
Perhaps, someone like us.
The trick to successful Free Craigslisting is vigilance and speed. Anything good will be quickly snatched up, so we check frequently for new posts, and respond to good ones immediately – including our phone number, names, when we can pick up, and maybe even why we want it.
When someone will be getting a ton of responses, you want to stand out from the pack – more than once we’ve been told we were selected from a bunch of emails because we’re an organic farm that wants to use the item – and not a metal scrapper just looking to melt it down for a couple bucks.
More than anything (other than maybe lucky), you need to be flexible – open to using something unexpected, and open to things coming when they come and not when you think they should. (And of course,you need a trailer or a truck to haul the larger items!)
Giving people farm tours at our end-of-season pizza party, I was constantly describing various features as coming to us “free off Craigslist” – which inspired me to try to put a list together, which led to this post.
Here are just some of the many Free Craigslist scores that we rely on at the farm:
Farmers market trailer – born in the 60’s as a pop-up camper, transformed into an ice-fishing shack, and then put up for free adoption on Craigslist- where we found it and brought it home to become our farmers’ market trailer, used to store & haul the canopy, tables, chairs, and miscellany we need for our booth. (Kristin’s dad added a sheet metal wedge to the front to make it more aerodynamic when we found it was like pulling an open parachute down the road).
Rust shack frame – my favorite guest shack on the land is sided in old body panels from 1920s/30s cars, which we originally scavenged simply for their aesthetic and historical appeal, from the ruins of a Depression-era homestead in what’s now state land. When we scored a free “pallet fort” off Craigslist and hauled it home, the panels were reborn as shack siding once more …
The Albatross (mobile home guest cabins) –
In spring of 2015, the Albatross gave us two guest bedrooms, a bathroom (now with composting toilet and gravity solar shower),and a common area living room and kitchen – quite the upgrade, for only the cost of moving it to the farm (it was tricky to get a mover willing to haul such an antique, but we got lucky).
The FishHouse ice shack
16×8 feet of insulated, easily-assembled, cozy indoor space for free! This not only has served as WWOOFer housing, but also as our cold weather quarters (also came with a free woodstove), and a controlled environment for sweet potato curing and herb drying.
Chickens Usually we buy our laying flock, but we got 14 hens for free last spring.
12×18′ Screen Porch – At certain times of day and season, mosquitoes can be a real menace – a free screenporch from someone upgrading their lake cabin’s porch to an all-aluminum version provided us with a much-needed safe haven when the vampires were swarming.
Fluorescent lighting – back before we built the little greenhouse, we had to start our seedlings indoors, on wire racks under lights – lights which we scored for free from an office that was switching to LEDs.
Fire bricks and clay – we wanted to build a wood-fired rocket mass heater for the greenhouse, on a low budget. Craigslist graciously provided … first thousands of pounds of pure clay (we have literally no clay soil to use on our land), and then piles of insulative fire bricks!
Raspberry bushes – hundreds of them! We just had to dig the roots up from the up-pick raspberry farm that was closing down.
SO MUCH MISCELLANY… such as truck toppers (made into woodshed and chicken coop roofs, furniture, doors, windows, boards, bricks, blocks, hay bales, freezers, ladders, pallets, barrels and several 600 gallon IBC tanks for rainwater storage, water heater tanks, garden carts, two gargantuan 450 lb rolls of paper …… wooden stairs, shelves and cabinets, tons of rocks, hundreds of gallons of potting soil, a propane stove, a giant chalkboard (cut up into signs for the market booth), a clawfoot tub for off-grid hot baths …
… loads of horse and rabbit manure, hundreds of oranges and grapefruits (made into preserves and juice, while WWOOFing down south) …… a DIY wood-fired water heater core, electric oven turned electric smoker (which we turned wood-fired) …
… etc! I’ll amend this post as time goes on, since I have no doubt at all that Craigslist will continue to be a source of many free treasures – things that make our deliberately-low-budget lifestyle not only possible, but fun.
Holy wow, it’s already well into May! Signs of the season surround us, reminding us just how lively this landscape is … greenery is bursting forth from every tree, every patch of earth.
Our apple and pear trees are blooming, as are the trillium, violets, and wild plum trees. The perennials are coming up – chives, rhubarb, raspberry, mint, lemon balm … and we ate our first fresh asparagus of the season last week.
Throughout the nights, mystery critters crunch through the undergrowth or scramble across our trailer, coyotes caterwaul in chorus, barred owls demand to know “who cooks for you?“, and once in a while a fox or civet makes a freaky womanlike scream. My favorite night sound is the abundant whip-poor-wills – nocturnal bug-eating birds that I only hear here.
The black bears are out and about, scavenging for treats – a young male has been knocking over Neighbor Marcia’s birdfeeders, and the momma bear and her three cubs from last year were spotted in the woods behind us – the cubs are huge now, in their second year, and about ready to set out on their own.
As always, Spring has been an incredibly busy time, as we get everything ready for the season. My hands are stained black with soil, and feature a wound on each palm, from ignoring Kristin’s sage advice and pounding in a row of t-posts without gloves … which led to blisters that didn’t hold up well to the continued post-pounding I subjected them to.
Starting seeds, nurturing baby plants, preparing the field, keeping ourselves and the tender plants alive and warm through the chilly nights … it’s an intense time of the year, filled with all the opportunities for hope and fear that you could want!
The biggest change this year is the High Tunnel greenhouse we completed at the end of last autumn, thanks to a USDA grant.
It’s a powerful and complex 72×30′ tool that we’re learning to use. After the winter, we returned to find the ground inside it totally green with grass and weeds – a beautiful lively space to hang out in, while everything outside was barren and brown! But soon enough we had to till the green under to prepare the soil for planting.
We then laid out irrigation throughout – since no rain falls inside, all the plants’ water needs must be delivered by us. There are soaker hoses that are gravity-fed by our rainwater collection tanks up on the hill, and drip irrigation lines in each row, fed by the well. We’re also adding an experimental rainwater collection system on one edge … which should be able to collect over 600 gallons of water from a 1″ rainfall.
We primarily plan to grow hot weather crops inside, but to get things started while nights were still going below freezing we planted some salad mix and peas. They survived the cold nights just fine – but now the challenge is to keep them from overheating during the sunny days, when temperatures in the high tunnel can easily reach triple digits if we aren’t careful. To ventilate the high tunnel, we roll up the 70-foot long side panels, permitting a cross-breeze to move through. This works pretty well, however, if it’s not merely breezy but windy (basically anything over 10mph), then we have to close at least one side up to prevent damage to the structure. It’s been a learning experience trying to balance wind minimization with heat regulation – and it will get even more interesting when the hot, sunny days of summer are upon us. (We plan to add additional ventilation in the peaks on both sides to help move hot air out even when there is no breeze.)
We’ve been very fortunate to have plenty of help this Spring. It would be a ridiculously long blog post if I tried to list it all, but I’ll try to hit some highlights …
Kristin’s dad Patriarch Jim Sehr has been helping us out a ton with various construction and repair projects – he added a service door to the high tunnel for far easier access, engineered the rainwater collection on there, got the riding mower working, and plumbed in our new and improved well pressure tank. And Matriarch Deb Sehr came out to cut and plant potatoes – and even do some dishes so we can stay on top of the field and construction projects.
Neighbors Dave & Marcia kept our flock of hens happy throughout the winter, provided us with additional firewood to fuel both the greenhouse heater and the new WWOOFer cabin (more on that a bit), lent us gopher traps, tools, and best of all, their tractor!
Plus, when I was despondent thinking I’d killed our well pump (it turned out to just be a flipped breaker in the generator), Marcia brought over rhubarb custard dessert and ice cream; I literally cannot imagine better neighbors to have.
Our friends from the Cities have come out to work with us (thanks Tyler, Amy, Steffan, & Eugene!) , and we’ve had lots of help from B & Nora – the WWOOFer/musician couple that worked here throughout the end of last season, and then returned early this spring. We got a free ice fishing shack off of Craigslist – insulated and complete with a little wood stove.
This turned out to be a perfect solution for them to sleep in throughout April – they helped us build it, and then made it their home – although they’d been prepared to just rough it under huge piles of blankets, the heated, insulated Fish House worked out much more pleasantly. Oh, and their Maine Coon cat, “Bucket,” is working with us too – keeping the vole population down.
The field still looks pretty empty, but the first wave of food is taking root out there – potatoes, peas, onions, radishes, turnips, and various salad greens have begun to stir, stretch, yawn, and emerge into the sunshine. And of course, there are many hundreds of plants growing in the greenhouse, awaiting suitable weather to be transplanted out.
The eternal battle with the evil quackgrass is back in full swing – we till or broadfork the soil of each row before planting, and then pull out as much of the tenacious, ropey, unkillable rhizomes as possible.
We’ll be using thick layers of mulch to slow down what doesn’t get pulled (it regrows from every tiny piece of root left behind) … it’s not a war that we ever really win, but we hold it at bay enough to get our crops for the year.
We give it the good fight and it reminds us that our farming here is not about efficiency … or even being reasonable.
Like all of life, it’s absurd and irrational – and we love it.
We’ve been back on the Farm since mid-March, getting things started for the year …
It’s been a month of preparation: hooking the solar power and rainwater collection systems back up, moving and fixing up the new guesthouse (a ’58 mobile home we got free on Craigslist), getting a new flock of laying hens, upgrading the nest boxes, turning dead trees into firewood, setting up fences, planning upgrades to the rainwater system, paying taxes, layering the hugelkultur mound, preparing for the coming 70×30′ high tunnel, and, of course, soaking in the hillbilly hot tubs.
But primarily, it’s been all about the seeds. This is our first year starting seedlings off grid, without either the electricity to run banks of lights or the controlled heat of a modern home – so we’ve had to do some improvising.
For next spring, we plan to have a wood fired, slow-release heating system installed in the greenhouse – a “rocket mass heater” that stores heat in a clay and stone bench running the length of the greenhouse, which we can germinate seeds on and leave plants overnight when temps drop down. But for this year, there was no time to build it …
So at first, we tried propane heat. We quickly discovered that it is far too expensive to try to maintain temperatures overnight in a structure that is not really made to hold heat – the thin plastic is great for letting sunlight in and holding the heat briefly, but when there is no sun and the temps are below freezing, a 200 square foot hoophouse will quickly drain your bank account – as well as leave you stressing about a propane cylinder going empty in the middle of the night and costing you everything you’ve worked so hard to start.
The first seedlings started were the cool weather crops – hardy specimens that can survive chilly air and soil, such as lettuce, broccoli, and kale. We also got some more perennials going – asparagus and rhubarb.
Using a handy digital thermometer with a probe (which lets us take readings in two separate locations), we experimented with different techniques for maintaining adequate temperature, and discovered that if we put the flats on the ground of the greenhouse at night and layered them with row cover fabric, the warmth of the earth keeps the trays several degrees warmer than the rest of the greenhouse.
When it is very cold, we bring them up into the trailer with us, to stay toasty with the heat from our wood stove.
This set the stage for the next wave of seedlings – the much more sensitive hot weather plants such as tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants.
These seeds will not germinate well unless soil temperatures are at least 80 degrees – and once they finally do emerge, the plants don’t like it much cooler than that, either – no lower than 50. So, we started a new regimen to accommodate them.
On clear days, when the sun warms the greenhouse up in the 80 to 100 degree range, we set up the warm-weather plants on the greenhouse shelves, to benefit from both the heat and the sunlight.
During these times, the cool weather crops are moved outside, to temperatures more to their liking, as well as into the wind and more direct sunlight that they need to get, in preparation for being transplanted into the open field.
We used the storm-ravaged mosquito gazebo frame and some row cover to build them a shelter, which keeps the sunlight moderated during the strongest times of day.
For nighttime and for still-germinating seeds (which require no sun and more heat), we hung ceiling-to-floor curtains in our trailer, dividing it into three areas: the living room with its big bright windows (which lose heat at night), the kitchen in the middle with the woodstove, and the bedroom in the rear of the trailer. Rearranging the furniture allowed us to set up a big wire shelving rack in the middle zone, capable of holding almost 20 flats of seedlings. The uppermost (warmest) shelves became our germination area – the curtains trap much of the heat from the woodstove, allowing us to easily maintain temperatures between 70 and 100 degrees overnight for the seeds to germinate within, without roasting ourselves to death while we sleep in the rear.
In the mornings, we load the sprouted trays into the van and move them “downstairs” into the protected sunny greenhouse. If it’s warm enough, the cool weather crops (which spend the nights on the greenhouse floor) get moved outside into the gazebo shelter. And then when the sun goes down, we bring them back into the greenhouse, and load the hot weather plants back into the van for a trip “upstairs” to their woodheated shelving in the trailer with us.
It’s a lot of shuffling trays back and forth and all around, but we’ve gotten pretty good at the process, handing the trays off from one person to the other at the doorways, using bread trays to move two flats at once, and making it a smooth and painless habit, a simple and quick routine. And because we’re here with the seedlings full-time (last year we did our germination in Kristin’s folks’ basement), we can pay close attention to maintaining consistent moisture levels, avoiding extremes of dry or wet soil that cause problems.
Not only does it work for us – it seems to be working great for the plants. This year we have the strongest and healthiest looking seedlings we’ve had yet – strong stems, glowing leaves, high germination rates, and no sign of damping off, yellow leaves, or other signs of stressed or unhappy seedlings.
Of course, just as it gets easier and feeling under control, it’s time for the next phase of things – this week we started planting seeds out in the field – so far, onions and snap peas, with lettuce and spinach on the to-do list next.
This means weeding rows and beds, planting, and mulching … making this a great time of year to come out and help if you’re interested in volunteering; there’s a lot to do, but it’s not hot and there aren’t any mosquitoes, gnats, or flies to speak of … yet!
2015 is off to an awesome start – I know there is no certainty when it comes to the future especially in farming, and ‘whatever will be, will be’ – but I’m predicting the best year yet!
One year ago we left our home in Minneapolis and dove into our new life.
During the year since then, we’ve traveled for four months working and learning on other farms throughout the southern states, and spent 8 months building up our little homestead farm in the sand barrens of Western Wisconsin.
It’s easily been the best – most rewarding, most interesting, most promising, and most exciting – year of our lives, at an age I feared I’d be settling into an increasingly domesticated rut. Living outside my comfort zone – learning skills and approaches that make me acutely aware of how little I know and how much there is to learn – has been humbling and awesome.
Today, we’re ushering in the new year at Habitable Spaces down in Kingsbury, Texas. It’s been cold and rainy since 2014, although the chill is only by Texas standards – it’s currently 40 here, but only 12 back home on the Que Sehra Farm … I’ll take it .
Kristin had some good photos on her phone that didn’t make it into the “Inhabiting the Habitat” post last week, so here some of them are …
Happy New Year everyone! Life is short and we’re writing our life stories every day – let’s all make this next chapter the best one yet.