upgrading

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Our first chicken coop was a beast. We were still scraping our life back together at that point: paying things off, fixing our credit, renting a trailer. We needed to do something that would tangibly set us on the path toward our goals and remind us why we were hustling so hard. On a bit of a whim, J sent a text to our landlord, asking if he minded chickens. He didn’t. So we brought six chicks home and settled them in the bathtub.

We’d need a coop before long, so J got to work. Using an old tabletop as the base, he added 4″x4″ posts as legs, a bookshelf sliced in half as nesting boxes, and asphalt shingles given to us by neighbors. Fort Knox is a beast of a chicken coop, weighing a ton and costing us next to nothing to build – $50? $100? I can’t remember now. We moved it to the new house, and now use it as our transition coop – a space for the teenagers when they outgrow the brooder box.

The next coop was just a corner of the existing barn with roosts and nesting boxes added. It seemed the perfect solution: plenty of ventilation, existing electricity, an outside wall for a hatch door to the run. J caulked up any gaps in the boards and laid a new plywood floor, and our flock grew to 25 birds. And then the first spring thaw happened. Everything flooded. There was water and wet bedding everywhere, and we were in a panic about how to keep the birds healthy and safe. It was a total mess. I hope this was a fluke,  I thought. I hope it doesn’t happen again next spring.  All winter I skated down the little hill to the coop, bringing fresh water, serving scratch, filling the feeder. And then everything flooded again.

Chickens have delicate respiratory systems. Dirty bedding gives off ammonia which will make them sick, as will damp conditions. The two combined is a deadly recipe. And a sick bird hides it as long as she can. By the time your chicken acts sick, it’s almost too late to save her. We’ve lost a hen to a respiratory infection, and we’ve saved one (my then nursing student husband injected her with antibiotics – yikes!). A flooded coop is more than just a bit of water; it’s a chicken health nightmare.

Clearly the barn would continue to flood each year, and just as clearly, we weren’t going to give up keeping chickens. A new coop was needed.

It took a lot of time and thought to make this decision. We looked at photos and walked the property to assess the springtime water flow. We chatted out pros and cons of multiple sites, considering access to the house and electricity, snow removal needs, aesthetic appeal. And then we pulled the trigger, so to speak.

We ordered a custom built chicken coop.

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Delivered the first week of July, it’s Amish construction by Horizon Structures – the same Pennsylvania company that has built coops for Lisa Steele of Fresh Eggs Daily and Melissa Caughey of Tilly’s Nest. Pre-run for electricity, it’s got an outlet and a light fixture, and it’s rated for up to 40 chickens.

We’ve made some minor modifications already. We painted the interior white to lighten things up. We added a hook and eye inside the storage area door so that the chickens don’t swarm in while we’re filling their feeder. J installed a lip at the man doors so that the bedding stays inside. We discovered the need for a barrier at the bottom of the caged storage room so that the bedding stays where it’s supposed to be. Small tweaks to make it work for us and for our flock.

It’s beautiful. It meets our needs now, and any future needs we could anticipate, and it will be really nice not to take my life into my hands each time the flock needs fresh water this winter. That icy hill was no joke.

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Some days, I am still stricken with buyer’s remorse. It feels disingenuous to have paid for such a luxury when we are trying so hard to be self-sufficient in all other areas – despite the knowledge that we sketched everything out and were in full agreement about the value of and need for such a purchase. I think that’s just part of life – making the best decisions you can with the information you have, and trying not to second guess yourself every step of the way. I’m sure the chickens are just happy to have a warm, dry house, so I should be too.

what are we doing?

I ask myself this frequently. Often the question is accompanied by a head shake, either attempting to suss out the sanity of a decision or trying to clear the confusion of a tired, multi-tasking mama brain and truly ascertain what the heck is going on right in front of me. With the current headcount around here, we’re doing a lot!

What I haven’t been doing is sharing. That’s partly because my motivation for writing has shifted a bit. This former Town Mouse has settled comfortably into her Country Mouse role and our experiences don’t feel quite as novel as they once did. That’s not to say they’ve lost their shine completely! They’re just a little less glittery, a little more commonplace, and I’m not always sure what I could say that would be of interest to anyone else.

I also find myself on Instagram more often, sharing our stories in that micro-blogging style that is so quick and easy to dash off. It’s a different kind of accounting, more of a photo album than a journal, and I see the value in both the quick share and the long form. But there’s nothing like a letter from a friend, is there? And that’s how several of you have described your past visits here – like getting the latest news from home. So here we are.

What are we doing?

We are homeschooling! Here we are, heading into our third year of this adventure, our first legal year as Swee has reached the compulsory age of attendance. We’ve purchased a curriculum for the first time, and I’m excited to see how that works for us.

We are keeping bees! They are such amazing little creatures, and I am in awe of how little control I as the “keeper” really have over them. Terrifying and entrancing.

We committed to our chickens, and installed a brand new, standalone coop! I’m excited to take you all for a tour very soon. After I muck it out.

And lest you think we live in some rural utopia here – we are struggling to keep up with the dishes, the laundry, and the weeds. We’ve lost five hens recently, and our little old Schnauzer is wrapping up his final summer. There are some tough decisions coming our way, and more than a few frustrations swirling around us.

But that’s how you write a good letter, isn’t it? You share the real stuff – the good and the difficult.

More soon – on all of it.

 

she’s a bad penny

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I drafted this a couple of weeks ago, and never finished or published it. Insomnia and I haven’t run into each other again yet, but I’m sure she’ll turn up eventually, bad penny that she is.

I heard the rooster crow, and made my way from the couch to the kitchen to check the time. It was still too dark to see the wall clock, so the digital numbers on the stove display would have to do. 4:12am. Well, I reasoned, if Pocket says it’s morning, so be it. 

Insomnia doesn’t often catch me; I am too tired from working and mothering and gardening and housekeeping and on and on. When she does manage to snag me, she is cruel. I’ve been awake since two, settling onto the couch just as J was shutting down his game console and heading upstairs. Passing in the night, literally.

What does catch me is indecision. Doubt. Anxiety and uncertainty. We’ve been bumping into each other a lot lately, like that ex-boyfriend you’d rather not see. Did we make the right choice? Why didn’t we do that years ago? I wish we’d known then what we know now. 

And when those strange bedfellows decide to party with Insomnia? It’s a wild ride down the rabbit hole. Makes for a long night.

I’ve learned that if I don’t win the battle quickly, it’s best to take control of the situation by getting up and being productive. I emptied the dishwasher and scrubbed the pots in the sink. Began a load of laundry and got some bread out of the freezer. Made a To Do list of steps toward abolishing the horrors of the rabbit hole. And now I’m on the balcony, drinking coffee and watching a porcupine trundle through the orchard. Quiet, solitary. Deep breaths.

 

yes, it does.

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I didn’t know how long it had been since I’d written in this space. I was almost afraid to look. But of course I did look (spoiler: six months). And then I read through my last couple of posts, and smiled while remembering the happenings I’d written about. I’ve been told that we seem to live a charmed life here, and I know that I consciously use this blog to help me see the joy in our days, but it struck even me how happily I presented our adventures, how lively our days had seemed.

Why did I stop writing?

Six months ago, J was in his last term of nursing school. He was gone more than he was here, and was preparing for the single biggest exam of his life. Six months ago, we pulled Beans out of the public pre-K program she was attending and sent her back to her nursery school. We added a 30 minute drive, each way, to our schedules, three days a week, and felt like total deviants for withdrawing her from school – even though we had already departed the beaten path by homeschooling her sister. Six months ago, I took on new responsibilities in my own job, and the other tasks I’d been managing didn’t transfer off of my plate immediately. My new roles are far more in line with my skill set and with what I want to do, but there was still a learning curve in terms of new programs and systems and deadlines.

It was a lot, and something had to give. Sadly, it was my writing that went the way of the buffalo.

I’m breathing deeply again these days. Last weekend, we drank coffee until almost 10am, ate snacks when we got hungry, and wandered around the yard looking at puddles and branches and things turning green. There was no plan or schedule, and I finally relaxed. I’ve been sick for over a month now, rallying for a day or two and then crashing again, and I can’t help but feel that I simply cashed in all my chips over the last six months and my immune system is digging its heels into the mud, refusing to run at that pace any longer. Fair enough; I can take the hint.

J is working full-time as a registered nurse in the Critical Care Unit. Beans is thriving in a loving and supportive school environment. I’m beginning to see the possibilities around us again. I won’t set any crazy blogging goals – let’s just take it one day at a time, shall we? I think that’s best. But it does feel good to be back in this space. Yes, it does.

 

 

goodnight, garden

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The garden is empty now, save six lone Brussels sprout plants. They are hunkered down, waiting for Thanksgiving. I’ve read that you can leave them in the ground until you’re ready to use them, and that a bite of frost even mellows their flavor, but the way the weather has taken this hairpin turn, I’m a little nervous to risk them. I’ll have to do some more research.

We spent several hours outside last weekend, the girls and I, pulling plants and narrating elaborate games of make-believe. My mother’s birthday was a few days before, and I had hoped to have the girls pick a bouquet for her as the zinnias were still vibrant and strong. About an hour before Gramma was set to arrive for cake and presents, I sent Sweebee and Beans out with a pair of clippers and their Uncle T-Rex, and they sadly discovered that all but the most hardy blooms had succumbed to the black kiss of Jack Frost.

So we stacked bunches of marigolds on piles of zinnias on massive stalks of cosmos, all outside the fence in semi-tidy heaps to be carted off at a later date. Happily, that later date came quickly, and I poked my head out of my office earlier this week to see that T-Rex and the girls had cleaned everything up, including the pile of rocks we picked. Because somehow there are still rocks surfacing. Our neighbor rode the tiller down the hill on Monday night for us to borrow, and by Tuesday, we had freshly turned dirt, ready for amendment. As of this afternoon, the space has a year’s worth of composted chicken manure and pine shavings raked across the top. I’m hoping to do some additional layering before the snow covers things up. We don’t have enough cardboard saved to cover the whole plot, and we certainly don’t have the rotting apples like last year, but might have a line on some free cow manure. To be continued…

In the meantime, I have a lot of squash to manage. There are pumpkins to roast and to carve into faces. Not pictured are the baskets and buckets of apples in my bathroom that we’re hoping to press. Also not pictured are my children’s Halloween costumes. Because they’re not started. Oops. I suppose it will all get accomplished sooner or later!

How are you putting your garden to rest this year? Got any tried-and-true methods for me?

so much for my apple empire

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Last year was our first fall on the property. It was a season of possibility as we explored our land and watched our orchard produce more than we could ever have eaten. I filled the freezer with jars of applesauce and bags of pie filling. We invited everyone we knew to come pick, and pressed gallons of cider with neighbors. We scooped huge handfuls of dropped fruit, filling two 55 gallon drums, and umpteen buckets for the pigs our friends raise, leaving behind plenty for the deer and bear. We spread apples on our new garden plot and covered them with chicken manure and cardboard to try and enrich the soil over winter. And still apples remained – on the ground and on the branches, long into the winter. I had dreams of pruning, and spraying organically, and supplementing our income with apple sales.

And this year? Goodness, it’s dismal out there.

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Four of our trees didn’t produce a single apple, including the two that were most prolific last year. And we’re down a tree, having lost a big one in the storm last October. Half of what’s on the remaining trees is already nibbled, and there isn’t a single fruit on the ground. That’s not an exaggeration. I walked the orchard today with a mid-sized kitchen trash can, looking for anything I could collect for the pigs. I found little more than poop, both deer and bear. We’ve seen a doe with two fawns in the orchard several times recently, once with a young buck. Thankfully I haven’t seen the bear. Nature’s cleanup crew seems particularly efficient right now.

Through local conversation, I’ve gleaned several theories about the situation. It was the second dry summer in a row, so apple harvests all over Maine are suffering. Fruit trees alternate years, so this is just an off year for our trees. The overabundance of acorns last year led to a squirrel population boom, and those silly tree rats decimated the immature apples early in the season. When you stack all three ideas, it doesn’t bode well for orchards, and I am grateful that our livelihood does not depend on those trees.

I’m bummed for several reasons, and not just that I was unable to enter the apple industry. We had really hoped to feed healthy, fresh produce to our pig for lean, flavorful meat. And expanding on that, our apples would have lowered our friends’ grain expenses, which would have lowered our own payment for the finished pig. It’s a very small but certain example of how everything is connected in a small, local system.

shifting

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The weather is shifting. Our mornings are cooler, and heavy with dew. I’ve begun to throw on an extra layer to visit the chickens, and though last Tuesday was uncomfortably toasty, we won’t break seventy degrees again in the foreseeable future. I’m wearing flannel today, and am really quite happy about it.

The firewood has been cut and split, seasoned and stacked in the basement. In true homesteading fashion, however, there has been a snafu. We hired a local company to inspect and clean our chimney, thinking it only prudent after gumming up the works with our clumsy first attempts. I’m glad we did. The clay tiles lining the main flue are missing some masonry between them, and we shouldn’t use the stove until everything is  repaired. That recommendation came with an estimate of almost $2000 – ouch. We did not plan for that level of investment. They can’t get us in until the end of October, so while I am relishing the cooler temps, I’m also hoping they hold steady until we get the all clear.

I’ve pulled the tomatoes, so the jungle is no more. I loaded up all of the vines in the wheelbarrow, and trucked them down to “the edge,” as we call it – a rock outcropping below the shed, with a drop-off, sort of a natural dump that the previous owners tossed all manner of things into for burning, but that we use only for natural waste materials. Stuff that won’t/can’t go in my compost bin: rocks, big woody plants, rocks, loads of dirt, more rocks, etc. With the vines cleared, I tried to scoop up all of the fallen fruits for the chickens, hopefully avoiding volunteers in the spring, but I’m sure I missed some. There were a lot on the ground. And the basil had completely gone to flower between the “rows.” Lesson learned: space tomatoes further, install cages at planting time.

I think the beans are pretty much done as well. They didn’t produce nearly the way I had hoped – really, it was only the Rattlesnake plants that amounted to anything. We had beans with dinner four or five times, and that was it. Nothing canned, nothing frozen. Disappointing, really. I’ve left a couple of pods on the poles to mature and dry for seed, but I think I’ll also pick up some bush varieties to try next year.

Next up is apples. They still had that “chalky” flavor last week when we walked around testing them, so I’m guessing we’ll be out there next week or the one after. It’s a small crop this year. Several of the most prolific trees last fall are completely bare, and the rest are more sparse – though that’s in line with what we’ve heard about fruit trees alternating. And we learned at the Fair this past weekend that it’s been a poor apple year all around Maine after two consecutive summers of drought. I think we’ll still have plenty for our own use, and to share. And that’s enough, for sure.