Frigid Morning + Chicken Talk

It is 12 degrees outside and the wind is crazy.  Let’s hope that the baby will sleep through the wind gusts and that the tulips, daffodils, and fiddleheads that have emerged early will survive this bitter cold.

Shout out to my best friend and her husband (who is my husband’s childhood best friend) on getting their meat rabbit operation started this week!  They’ve got one Silver Fox buck, three Silver Fox does, and one New Zealand White doe.  The New Zealand lady is pregnant and they’re going to breed one of the Silver Fox girls today.  This is so exciting because they dream of operating a grass farm and this is their first step in the right direction.  They even have a restaurant lined up to purchase the meat rabbits, and of course my husband and I will be overjoyed to be patrons to their business.

I saw that our local Tractor Supply Company is getting chicks this Monday.  And with our best friends getting their first farm animals, and with my baby being a relatively consistent napper, I’m feeling tempted to jump in the deep end because I feel that I may feasibly have the time to dedicate to it.

We plan on raising Black Australorps because they are a cold hardy and relatively calm bird.  Some of my husband’s coworkers have already expressed interest in purchasing eggs from us when the time comes, but even so I’m thinking that three hens is a good start.  (I’m always trying to remind myself to start small.)  When they start laying that’ll be plenty for two adults and eventually one little one.  Some websites have a minimum order size bigger than what we hope to start with, so if TSC offers this breed in store I may consider buying there.  I may not even do it this year, but I’m thinking about it.

Here is the plan for a coop and run that I’ve been looking at for a few years now.  I like that it’s designed to be easy to clean and with easy egg access.  If you have your own backyard chickens, I’d love your input.  What do you wish you knew when you first got your operation set up?  What features would you add to this coop?  Is it worth it to build your own, or do you recommend a ready-to-build kit?


Winter Planning, pt. 3

Despite the snowy day on Sunday, it’s been unseasonably mild again this week.  In fact, it was 56 degrees out when I was feeding the baby at 2:00 this morning!  That’s unbelievable for the first day of March, especially when it’s dark out.

Anyway, the good thing about the mild weather is that it gives me a chance to step out for some fresh air with the baby during the day.  I’ve been keeping an eye out for the first signs of rhubarb so we can locate the crowns and divide them.  I hoped to get to it this year but with the order of fruit trees coming in two weeks and my husband in the heat of school musical season I’m thinking we’ll have to push it off until 2018.  But in the meantime we can work on clearing the wild grape and blackberry from the area so that it’ll at least be easier to access the rhubarb for this year’s harvest.

As a side note, I’m off my game lately.  I’ve got a baby here who’s going through a growth spurt.  Phew!  We are all extremely tired.  I feel like I’ve got a newborn again – we went from a six-hour stretch of sleep (and for almost a week, an eight-hour stretch!!) to getting up every 2 hours all night long.  Luckily she’s still taking naps during the day, so although I’m trying to spend at least one of them catching up on my sleep I’m also able to continue plugging along with our garden plans.  Let me catch you up on that.

In order to maximize the square footage of our raised bed garden, we will be growing vertically and companion planting.  I first compared online and text resources to figure out crops that grow well together, then made pairings that (1) combined one crop that can be trellised with another that can stay low to the ground and (2) would not repeat a crop family two years in a row (i.e. no nightshades following nightshades).  So from all of that reading I’ve come up with long term plans that we will utilize as we expand the garden as well as a modified plan for this year’s mini-garden.  I hope this may be useful for other growers who are trying to maximize their space!

Now that I’ve got this figured out, I’ll soon be posting the sketches for our 4×8 beds.  Stay tuned!

2017 Companion Planting Plan:

  • Bed 1: indeterminate tomatoes (string trellis), lettuce, chard, bush beans, dill, parsley, basil
  • Bed 2: determinate tomatoes, tomatillo, pepper, watermelon
  • Bed 3: cucumber (hormanova trellis), melons (hormanova trellis), summer squash (bush), okra
  • Bed 4: winter squash, pole beans (hormanova trellis)
  • Bed 5: kale, cabbage, kohlrabi, carrot, beet, spinach, radish
  • Bed 6: broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels, mesclun, carrots and beets (spring) –> turnips and rutabaga (fall)

Long Term Companion Planting Guide:

  • indeterminate tomatoes (string trellis) –> basil, parsley, dill
  • determinate tomatoes (basketweave trellis) –> winter squash
  • tomatillo and ground cherry –> watermelon
  • pepper –> calendula
  • eggplant –> nasturtium (hormanova trellis)
  • broccoli –> beet (succession)
  • Brussels sprouts –> lettuce
  • cauliflower –> carrot (succession)
  • collards –> mesclun mix (succession)
  • cabbage –> carrot (succession)
  • kale –> spinach (succession)
  • melon (hormanova trellis) –> bush beans (succession)
  • summer squash (bush) –> pole beans (string trellis)
  • cucumber (hormanova trellis) –> mesclun (succession)
  • winter squash –> pole beans (string trellis)
  • watermelon –> pole beans (string trellis)


Winter Recess

In our area schools get a week off for “winter recess” in February. Mother Nature took that kind of literally this year, as we’ve had weather over 60 degrees since Wednesday! Quite a break from winter! But in typical Upstate NY fashion, we’re expecting snow again on Sunday. It should be snowy and cold during this time of year, but who am I to complain that it felt like May?

My husband is a teacher, so this week brought some welcome family time with lots of walks around the yard with the baby. There’s nothing like fresh air and sunshine to keep you healthy.


We had company over for dinner last night and I cooked a pastured pork shoulder our favorite way – stuffed with lots of garlic, rubbed with paprika, cumin, oregano, salt, and pepper, seared, and braised low and slow over onions in homemade hard apple cider.  It’s not the most photogenic food but it is mighty tasty!  We’ll be enjoying the leftovers for a while.

I hope everyone who had this weird warm weather had the chance to enjoy it as much as we did. I hate that next week will be back to normal!  If only my husband and I could both work from home as farmers.

Winter Planning, pt. 2 + FREE PRINTABLE!

This year, my family is scaling back our growing space to 4×8 raised beds instead of traditional rows.  Over the coming weeks I will be writing about the biointensive planting, intercropping, and vertical growing methods that we will use as well as sharing my plans and materials.

My husband picks on me because I read seed catalogs ad nauseam, over and over even though my seeds were selected and ordered a while ago.  When everything is covered in snow I can’t help but drool over the photos of fresh produce!

I noticed that Johnny’s sells seed disks for herbs.  The seeds are already spaced for you on paper, which you then simply pop into a pot, cover to the proper planting depth, and water.  In my time gardening I haven’t had much success with herb growing from seed besides parsley, basil, and dill, and that’s why these initially caught my attention.  As I’ve continued to finalize the layout for this year’s garden, I had the idea that maybe there were similar products for vegetable crops that get directly sown – carrots, radishes, etc.  I have a 4-row seeder that I like for the ease of planting and spacing rows, especially for baby green mixes, but I still have to get down on my hands and knees when it’s time to thin the root crops (and besides, I hate feeling like I’ve wasted perfectly good seedlings during the thinning process).  All I could find was seed tape, but this wasn’t what I had in mind.

I know you can make your own seed tape by putting dots of flour-water paste or water-soluble glue at the appropriate spacing intervals across a length of toilet paper, then placing seeds in each dot of paste.  However, what I envisioned was a sheet with seeds spaced out in a hexagonal pattern, which is our preferred spacing method for root and greens. I first read about this technique in Sustainable Market Farming: Intensive Vegetable Farming on a Few Acres by Pam Dawling.  In this method, plants are staggered in a way that, unlike a grid, allows each plant to have equal access to sunlight while also using space more efficiently than traditional rows.  A quick Google search showed that other gardeners have had similar seed mat ideas before, but I couldn’t find any templates.

seed-mat.jpegBased on common biointensive spacing recommendations I’ve made some hexagonal pattern templates.  Using unfolded paper napkins or paper towels, which are just about a square foot in size, put dots of the paste or glue in the appropriate spots and then place your seeds.  You’ll still have to thin your beets, but that’s a lot less work than thinning all of your roots and greens!  I’m thinking this will make our succession planting pretty easy when the time comes, as I’ll just have to place another napkin down, cover as needed with compost, and move on.

Feel free to use these templates for your garden plan.  Let me know if you have experience making or using seed mats or if you plan to give them a try this year!

Click Here to Download Free Seed Mat Templates!

My Farmer Bod is MIA

I’ve mentioned before that as the baby’s sleep patterns have become more predictable I’ve been finding some more time for myself. During her first nap I’ve been beginning to recondition my post-cesarean body to summer farming condition. For the past few weeks it has been a mix of gentle body weight work, core strengthening, and LOADS of stretching. I stretch every chance I get!

I came across an article the other day from The Self-Sufficient Life ( in which the author gives seven exercises that will come in handy for homesteading.  If you’re looking for a good circuit that you can adjust to your own fitness level, the first six are a good mix: squatting, lunging, pushing, pulling, twisting, and bending.  (Note: He mentions push-ups but chest presses and shoulder presses would also be a great way to get those pushing muscles in order.)  His seventh recommendation, accelerations, is a bit much for my body right now, but I’m looking forward to the spring weather when I can pop the baby in her stroller and at least go walking.

I tend to be more in the camp of exercising through practical tasks, but that simply isn’t happening during our zone 5 winter. I think that for now, combining circuits based on the strength exercises with lots of stretching and flexibility work will get me on track.  I’m taking it extra slow and focusing more on eating well and feeling good.

Mamas, I’m wondering what other fitness routines and stretches you found to be the most restorative postpartum.  And farmers, I’m wondering if you have any other exercises you would add to The Self-Sufficient Life list!

Happy Birthday

So I’m one year closer to the big 3-0.

Over the past two or three days the baby has suddenly been vocalizing and communicating more than ever before. Multisyllablic utterances, too. I feel like she’s offering me a special birthday gift with this milestone, reminding me that all the setbacks from her first two months are in the past.  I love her so fiercely, more than I ever could have imagined.  I hope she loves growing up on our little farm.  In many ways the work we do here is for her.  We want to provide her with exceptional health and happiness, and it’s our belief that this starts by eating the freshest food and breathing the freshest air.

It may not seem like much, but my husband gave me two gifts that I feel so grateful for: a pastured chicken from a small rotational grazing operation nearby and an antique cast iron bell for the yard. Athough I have many vegetarian and vegan friends who make compelling arguments for their dietary choices, our research on grass farming and rotational grazing has led us to be omnivores.  From our point of view, the way these farming practices model mother nature and restore the soil makes sense.  We do not eat meat every day, but by pre-ordering whole (or half in the case of pigs) animals, rationing them throughout an entire year, and embracing nose-to-tail cooking, we know exactly how many animals we eat as a family and feel intense gratitude and reverence for each of them.  And we use every single bit of them, down to rich bone broths and rendered fat.  Because we eat meat so infrequently and because the quality is so high, the gift of a pastured chicken is quite special.

Even as someone from the agriculture world, I too went through initial sticker shock at pastured meats and dairy.  However, the flavor is incomparable and we like supporting our neighbors’ businesses and knowing that the animals were raised with respect to their biological needs.  We are fortunate to be able to afford these products. Although we only have one full-time income at the moment, we prioritize whatever money is leftover after the
mortgage and essential utilities and savings  to go to food.  Growing a lot of our own vegetables and fruit gives us more room in our budget, too.

A chicken that costs $5/lb. is a big investment, but one way to stretch the cost over many more meals is to make stock.  We do this by combining the bones and extra pan drippings with vegetable scraps, fresh herbs, and whatever other aromatics are in the pantry with water.  The stock cooks for about two days on very low heat.  Often we do this in a slow cooker so it requires less maintenance.  What we’re left with is lots of flavorful, gelatinous liquid gold to put in the freezer – perfect for cold and flu season!

Anyway, I’m lucky to have such a supportive husband who embraces farm life so well.  It was a sweet, snowy birthday weekend to remember. And I’m looking forward to cooking that chicken for Valentine’s Day!

What are your favorite ways to prepare chicken?  I’m thinking we’ll have this one simply with lemon, garlic, and thyme.  And maybe some fresh bread on the side to soak up the pan sauce…

Bedtime Thoughts

I set a goal for myself to at least write every Thursday and Sunday so I thought I’d squeeze in a few words before I go to bed.

Now that the baby is out of the newborn stage her routine is becoming more predictable (strong emphasis on the word “becoming”!). Most nights she gets up only once to eat and most days she has a relatively consistent routine. Her first nap is the longest and typically gives me enough time to squeeze in some exercise and a bit of farm work, and her shorter naps can be used for tidying up around the house and cooking dinner.  I’ve heard I should nap along with her but I am not good at sitting still!

One of the hardest things for me about breastfeeding and caring for a newborn without local family (especially while recovering from a cesarean) has been the changes in my body.  As someone who does most of the work on her farm by hand, the loss of strength and mobility is a scary thing and a major setback.  It will be a long time before I can do as much as I used to.  And as such, my plans need to be tweaked accordingly.

After doing a lot of reading this week I’ve decided that we are going to grow in nine 4×8 raised beds this year.  By the square foot, it’s a much smaller garden than I’m used to but it will be smart to scale back this year. That being said, I’m using this as an opportunity to better develop our biointensive practices as well as incorporate vertical growing and intercropping techniques.

More words on this later on.  Sweet dreams!

Winter Planning, pt. 1

020417.jpgGood morning!  How great is it to wake up to sunshine and blue skies?  Winters here are mostly grey (plus we’re in zone 5 and it’s super cold), so this weather makes for an instant good mood.  We won’t be straying far from the house today but it’ll give us the chance to catch up on some chores and cooking.  And I’m trying to buckle down on plans for this year’s vegetable garden.

The problem is that I can’t plan this year’s planting schedule until I know exactly how much space I’ll have to work with.  I know I need something realistic for having a little one attached to my hip yet also helpful for future garden expansions.  We joke that last year’s garden was a food-forest, but really it was just a plot of crops overtaken by invasive weeds.  I bit off more than I could chew.  It was hard to keep the land cleared adequately in the heat of summer while pregnant.

I’ve been planning to eventually have eight 4×8 wood-framed beds of perennials (asparagus, sunchokes, herbs, horseradish) plus seventeen 30-inch x 40-foot beds with 12-inch paths in between.  Lately I’ve been toying with the idea of building the 4×8 beds and using them for this year’s annuals.  When I asked my husband’s opinion he was on board but also posed maybe sticking to the wood-framed beds in the future, expanding with a new line of them every year until the plot’s as big as we want.  I do love how tidy they look.  We have lots of friends and family who swear by them, and it would make bed prep manageable, but I’m unsure how I feel.  I’d probably end up with more than 40 of them, and I hate the idea of not using our beautiful native soil.  Maybe they can be shallow enough where the plants’ roots will still be able to access the soil.  I’ve got some research to do.  I guess if he wants to build more of them every year I can just sit back and enjoy, can’t I?  (Ha!)

Regardless, I’ll stick to the eight future-perennial beds (maybe plus some extra space) for this year’s garden.  Now I can get to work on sketching out the beds and figuring out how many plants I’ll need to start.

A Call to Farm

A year and a half ago, my husband and I decided we were ready to take the plunge and leave apartment life in the city.  He was ready to be a homeowner and have more privacy.  But for me, it was more about the land.  I missed the big yard, fruit trees, and garden that I grew up with in Pennsylvania.  I missed seeing the journey of food from planting to harvest to preservation.  I missed getting my paws dirty and performing work with tangible outcomes.

It had been about a year at that point since I had come to the realization that I wanted to get involved in the food system.  As a teacher in an urban school I began to see huge differences in attention, focus, and even academic achievement between my students who ate primarily natural foods and my students who ate primarily processed foods.  Lots of my kids, believe it or not, truly had no idea at all where their food came from, and some had never even had a home-cooked meal before.  I love teaching, but I felt like I had to switch gears and find a way to teach both children and adults about the importance of good food.farmhouse-from-orchard

We lucked out when we found our home – a small but recently renovated 1860s farmhouse on about six acres of land, including a few acres of woods, a creek, and lots of big old trees, perennial flowers, and rhubarb.  When we moved in that winter, we immediately got to work on turning the land into a homestead.  We added nine fruit trees and a large bed of strawberries, and we had ambitious plans for a 3,000 square foot vegetable garden…

…until during our first spring in our home we found out that we were going to have our first baby.  What a wake up call this was for me!  I am a dreamer, and this was a much needed reason for me to reel in my plans for that first year (and the years to come).  I decided to sit down and write down some big questions.  Why did I want to farm in the first place?  What were my goals for the property?  How was I going to use farming to support my family?  When did I hope to get my operation running?  How would I balance my role as a mother with my role as a farmer?

So here we are in the dead of winter, new baby in tow as we get ready for our second season.  My husband has encouraged me to write about life on our homestead, including parenting, natural living, and farming on a small scale.  I hope sharing this journey will allow me to find some sort of balance between all of these things.

How do you balance your role as a parent with your own aspirations?  Let me know!