Two Years Ago We Bought a House

Two years ago, we bought our house. The process of turning it into what we want and need continues, a well as the slow progression of building our garden. First year projects included removing blackberries, building the hen house and run, building the fence on the East side of the property, and taking down shed #1 of 2. In case you missed it, you can see the progression what we accomplished the first year here.

While the first year was all about learning what we had to work with and starting to work outside, year two focused on the house: painting the exterior, updating the kitchen, pulling up the carpet, and rearranging the living room more times than I can count. Here’s the journey of accomplishments from our 2nd year adventure in creating our homestead.

When we bought the house, it was painted a color I could only describe as “1000 Island Dressing” and HATED it with every fiber of my being. I tested several shades of grey before settling on this shade, which is Mercer Charcoal from Sherwin Williams, the trim is Swiss Coffee. The front door is Queen of Hearts. I still have to finish the trim, and there are sections on the back and side that need to still be painted grey, but I don’t see the hideous color anymore when I pull in the driveway, so I’m significantly happier.

front of house, then

year two

The fence on the West side of our property is slowly reaching the finish point, we’ve got about a 1/3 of the way to go. Once that’s done, we’ve still got a back section of the existing East line to rebuild, and then the front sections. So many fucking post holes. Pretty sure that when we finally get done, I’m going to have a Scarlett O’Hera moment…”As god as my witness, I will never dig another post hole AGAIN!”.

fence line, then

fence line, now

The garden is coming along nicely, with all efforts focused on this east side of the property. To date, we’ve brought in 43 yards of compost. We’ve got all the permanent raised beds on that side built, and are finally harvesting good quality produce. The fruit trees are also doing well. Hopefully we can get the beds planned for the other side done this coming year, as well as some more trees and bushes, but first we have to get a tractor back to do some grading to solve our flooding issue.

garden, may

garden, now

building the fence, then

fruit trees, now

We removed shed #2, which was the well shed with the broken pipe saga. The well hole is under that plastic container, needing to be re-lined and a new pump. It doesn’t look like getting that fixed is in this years budget, but we are hoping to get all the concrete around it broken up soon.

shed, then

shed gone, now

When we bought the house, we were told their was maybe hardwood under the boring beige carpet. Quickly after moving in, I pulled a corner up in the guest room closet, but only found pressboard. But then, while rearranging the furniture in the living room, I noticed a small slit in a carpet and peeled the corner back, to see the seams of hardwood. Unplanned chaos then commenced as we procedded to rip out all the carpet, revealing mostly hardwood- there are a few sections of pressboard and plywood. Because there is a door or an opening on every wall, and the front door opens into the middle of the room, the room is hard to arrange. I think I’ve finally got the living room set up in the most efficient layout.

living room, then

living room, now

And the most expensive project of the year: the kitchen. We replaced the cheap Home Depot stove with a 6-burner Blue Star Range. The standard flipped-house pressboard cabinets got upgraded to custom cabinets, which we saved thousands of dollars on by painting and sealing myself. They are painted Cloud White, by Benjamin Moore, and hardware is from Restoration Hardware. The counters are a brushed granite.  Top cabinets were replace with open shelves, made from boards reclaimed from the shed demo.

kitchen with stove, then

kitchen with stove, now

The shallow stainless-steel sink got switched out for a Kohler Harborview sink, which was an unbelievable Craigslist find. Its giant, I could use it as a bathtub, and is my favorite thing in the kitchen. The tile floor was replaced with the unfinished oak, and then stained. I haven’t sealed it yet, as I’m wanting to to get some scratches and scuffs in it to match the rest of the old flooring. Eventually, probably next year, we will refinish all the flooring and stain and seal to match.

then, with sink

kitchen with sink, now

As we enter year 3 of home ownership, we are turning our focus back to the yard. Finishing the fence will be the first thing, and then we hope to have the mess of concrete from the sheds and the patio removed. I’ve got one quote to break and haul, but its WAY out of our budget, so I’m now looking into just having it broken up and I’ll dry-stack it somewhere into a wall. After that happens, we need a swale dug and the yard graded, hopefully solving the drainage issues. That will likely take all our house funds for the year, but hopefully we can squeeze in some rain barrels along the chicken run, and rain tanks from the house. Oh yea, we also need new gutters and a sump-pump installed under the house.

The joys of home-ownership! Make sure to follow along in our third year adventure!

Deep Watering in a Drought, janky style

You may remember that I planted 6 fruit trees during the first year at our homestead. You may have also heard that California is in a drought. While I don’t water the old, ancient fruit trees that came with my property, my baby trees still require water. And since our rainy season is officially over, I’m back to watering my trees.

necterine blossoms

When it comes to watering fruit trees, particularly in a drought, the best way is to deep water. Deep watering means watering a greater quantity of water, less frequently, as compared to surface watering, which would be less water more often. With the deep watering method, the water percolates into the soil slowly and goes deeper, which is important for fruit trees so they develop strong deep roots, as opposed to lots of surface roots.

How much water a tree needs depends on its size. When we first put the trees in as bare root, it was advised to water 1.5-3 gallons, 3 times a week. After that, the general rule of thumb was to water 5 more gallons per year of growth, each week. That would put my trees as needing about 10-14 gallons a week this year. If you don’t know how old your trees are, you can follow the general guideline of approximately 10 gallons of water per inch of trunk diameter, per week.

With six trees, that’s 60 gallons of water a week. That’s a lot of water. I want to make sure none of that is being wasted, and the tree is getting the most benefit from my watering sessions. Best case scenario would be to use drip, but we don’t have that together yet, and I’m still hose watering. When I planted the trees, I formed the soil into a basin, so the hose water wouldn’t just run down the mound. But after a year of mulching, a digging dogs, foraging from escaped chickens, and general mischievous cats, my basins have pretty much disappeared. I tried just watering with the sprayer at the end of my hose, but the soil couldn’t absorb the amount of water the trees needed, and a lot of it would just run down into the weeds. I knew there had to be a better way!

cat, tree, chickens
cats and chickens are rarely helpful

ENTER my new janky bucket watering system!!!

deep watering with buckets

I created my own system of deep watering that didn’t cost anything, and lets the water drip slowly into the soil, putting it right where the tree needs it. I gathered up 3 5-gallon buckets, and drilled small holes in the bottom. Then, I place these buckets around the drip line of the tree. I fill the buckets about 2/3 full, and they slowly drip out over the course of an hour or two. Then, the next morning, I move the buckets to the next tree and start the process over. By the end of the week, I start back over on the first tree.

drilling holes in the bottom of buckets for deep watering

deep watering with 5-gallon buckets

It takes about 4 gallons for hot water to reach our shower, so we’ve been diligently making sure to capture that water, plus any water used from washing produce, low-soap rinse water, spent pasta water and water left from steaming. By giving this water a 2nd life and watering the trees, I’ve been able to avoid filling up any of the buckets with the hose. Hauling buckets around is cumbersome and I’m guaranteed to somehow get wet, and I’ve got buckets and basins everywhere, making my house and yard look somewhat like a recycling pile. But we really can’t afford to just let water go down the drain, and having NO WATER AT ALL seems much more inconvenient that this current system poses. Perhaps my next project will be to somehow paint all the buckets so they match and look cute scattered around the house….

hauling buckets

Please share this post and spread the word so we can all save water! If you have a helpful water-saving tip, please let me know! I’m compiling a post for next week about gardening in the drought.


Gardening in a Drought: How to deep water fruit trees with 5-gallon buckets

Adventures in Observation

“The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.” –Rachel Carson

Before bed, if I’m feeling anxious or overwhelmed, I often turn to the words of the great naturalists. Reading the thoughts and observations of people like Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson allow my mind to calm down and make me feel at ease. Recently, while reading Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, I processed that many observations and reflections happen early in the morning, just as the Earth is waking up.

yard at twilight
my yard at twilight

I consider myself a morning person. I am from a family of early risers. My dad got up every morning at 4:00 to go to work, and my mom helped see him off. I got up a bit later, at 5:30, eager to go to school. Right now, as I start work in the afternoons, I get up without an alarm and its usually when the sun rises. But if there is somewhere I need to be or something to do, regardless of the time, I have no problem getting out of bed (well, unless the three-legged orange purr monster wants to cuddle…) Yet despite my willingness to be up early, I’ve never gotten up early with the specific goal of just observing.

So this past week, I thought I would see the final week of Winter past and welcome Spring by getting up before the sun rose, and just sit outside, observing. And so I did. Each morning, armed with a cup of tea and a notebook, I went out shortly before 7 and sat outside under the persimmon tree.

tea at sunrise

On some days I saw the sky glow from the East, with wispy bits of pulled cotton clouds, always just one shade brighter than the lightening sky. On some days the sky was one big blanket of clouds, keeping the sky the color of the graphite words in my notebook. I listed to a lengthy solo by a lone mockingbird, carried on from its perch in the fig tree. . Do birds sing to express gratitude to the new day, or perhaps broadcast the latest gossip to anyone who would hear? Finches in the plum tree and quince bush carried on in chaos, flittering and chattering in no distinguishing order, only to be silenced for a moment when the blue jay swooped in, approaching in a large scalloped flight. Three houses down, I saw a white egret land in a sycamore, commanding my attention as it appears to step through the air, its wings backwards for balance, to set foot on a branch. I noticed that a lone purple sparaxis stayed open, despite its family of white blooms clasped shut until the sun awoke them, and I wonder if perhaps its dark color makes it less sensitive to light change?

early sunrise

sunrise behind housesunrise

I also thought about observing in general. The definition of observation “is the act of careful watching and listening; the activity of paying close attention to someone or something in order to get information”. I think that the more we observe something, the more we are connected to it, and the more likely we will appreciate it. If one knows that a bird nests in a tree, one is likely to think twice about cutting it down. If one experiences joy and recognizes the feeling of peace from walking on a beach, its unlikely one will leave their trash laying on the sand.

a lone purple sparaxis, open among a field of closed
a lone purple sparaxis, open among a field of closed

Our society is not great on slowing down and observing. We rush through our days with urgency. Even those lucky enough to spend time outside, myself included, are unlikely to still our mind and only look. My theory is that if we all stopped to observe our natural surroundings more often, with careful detail, we would have a healthy and more appreciative relationship with the Earth. We could all take a lesson from a cat, who happily sit under a bush or in the grass, and just watch.

What do you think? Do you find much time to just observe?

Remodeling the Nesting Boxes

Our very first nesting boxes were 2 individual cubes built from plywood. They were cut with a sawzall and a bit funky, but they worked. The moved with us and our 5 hens from Petaluma, and as the hens took up their new temporary residence in a shed, the boxes simply sat on the floor in a corner.

super old boxes

After we built the hen house, we got more hens, and I built a different set of nesting boxes. They consisted of 6 cubbies, made from scrap fence boards, a sloped tin roof, and a scalloped board on the front that matched the trim on our front porch. I painted the cubbies white, and backed them with teal wall paneling my friend Adriann pulled off her walls from her newly purchased home. They were cute and I felt very accomplished at my creation.

old nesting boxes

Except as time went on, I noticed that my design had flaws. Because my boxes were large, multiple hens would shove in one box, even though there were plenty of empty cubbies. The partitions between the cubbies weren’t high enough, so the hens would have a hard time choosing a cubby, and regularly walk between the boxes, or would fight over the half-walls. It was madness I tell you, MADNESS! In the process of the daily chaos , eggs would get broken and cause general mess. When we had pullets, the half partitions also encouraged roosting, making the boxes filled with poo, which was just gross and unsanitary for the hens to sit in, and also made my eggs constantly dirty.

side by side hens

The only way to clean the boxes was to scoop the shavings or straw out with your hands, and I was never really able to get it all and there would always be a layer of dirt and dust. If there was a broken egg, which happened pretty regularly, the shavings would get all wet and nasty. Because the boxes were a pain in the ass to clean, I procrastinated on it and they weren’t cleaned nearly as much as they should have been. side by side

The bottom layer of boxes had a false walls that reached the floor on the front and sides, but not the back, which turned out to be an entry way to a safe and cozy nest for about 15 rats. To solve that issue, the bottom three boxes were removed, and I was left with just 3 boxes flat on the floor. After a few months I determined was not enough to accommodate my 15 hens without more chaos.

poor osmosis

So I decided it was time to remodel the nesting boxes! My goal for the new boxes were to make them be easy to clean, cozy enough for the hens to come and lay, but also discourage fighting and indecisiveness.  I wanted the boxes off the floor to prevent the rat nest issue again, and also to possibly give me some storage for things like the heat lamp, chick waterers and the bag of Diatomaceous Earth that currently live in the garage.

So behold- my new and improved nesting boxes!

nesting boxes with removable tubs

I used a piece of plywood as the base, and used plywood for the sides.The partitions and the back were made from more of the reclaimed wall paneling. To fasten the plywood sides and thin paneling to the plywood, I screwed each panel to scrap lenght 2×2 wood at its base, and then came in at an angle with screws through the scrap wood to the plywood. I extended the partitions between each cubby all the way to the roof. The side boards were braced with another scrap 2×2 along the front and the back, which also provided “rafters” to hold up the roofing. Made from more scrap corrugated roofing, it keeps the hens from roosting on top and it matches the hen house roof.

delawear

The most brilliant feature of these new boxes is the removable tubs. I measured all the other components of the boxes to revolve around and fit 4 plastic dish tubs that I got from Target. Each tub fits perfectly in each cubby, and when I need to clean each box, I simply lift the tub out and dump the soiled bedding into the compost. Easy-peasy! To prevent the hens from jumping onto the edge of the tub and flipping it over, I fastened a front panel of plywood that fits just under the lip of the tub, making it so they don’t move.

just layed

The boxes sit on small logs 18″ off the ground. The tubs make the cubbies about 12″ wide, 16″ long, and 6″ deep, which is the perfect size for my average sized hens. They seem to be working well, and the hens seem happy!

eggs

In Which I Have Failed with Bees, twice.

Last May, I bought an up and running new hive from a beekeeper in Healdsburg. I picked out a hive, put it in my car, and drove home. After setting it up in the back corner of the property, in a location that sees the first morning light, and undoing the tape closing up the entrance, I announced I was an officially a keeper of bees.

bringing home my hive

Every time I checked the hive, I never really knew what the hell I was doing. For some reason, I thought it would come naturally to me, but it never did. I was perpetually unsure of myself, I didn’t know how to handle the frames or what I was looking for. I fumbled through all summer inspections, so I was quick to enroll when the JC offered their natural bee keeping class in the fall. I learned a lot, and felt more informed. I was finally confident in knowing what I was looking for and feeling better about how to work with the hive.

chickens and bees

honey and pollen

But then I got a gut feeling things weren’t going well. I had major robbing from other bees and relentless yellow jackets that would attack bees in mid air as they tried to leave the hive. If a bee hit the ground, they were done for it, torn apart by 3 or 4 yellow jackets. I reduced the entrance as small as I could, and avoided opening up the hive. As Autumn wrapped up, I worried there wasn’t enough honey stores to get them through the winter and was noticing lots of dead bees on the ground around my hive. On my final inspection to prep the hive for winter, I observed that there was in fact enough honey and pollen stores, but there were no eggs, no larva, and no capped cells with baby bees brooding inside. There was also very very few bees.

an empty hive
an empty hive

No brood or eggs meant my queen was dead or gone, and without the queen, the hive will suffer. If that had happened in the spring, I could have tried to replace her, or the hive would have hatched a new one, but because it was already almost winter, that wouldn’t happen. Even if she was still around, the current population I saw wasn’t large enough to tend to brood over the winter anyways.

I had to accept that very sad fact that my hive was essentially dead.

I’ll never know exactly what happened. The queen could have been killed by yellowjackets or I could have smashed her during one of my clumsy inspections. I found an almost built queen cell so I knew the hive was trying to recover. Perhaps because I brought them home so late in the spring they never had a chance to really establish. Maybe a neighbor sprayed a bunch of pesticides and my bees died of poisoning. It could be they were just weak and couldn’t deal with the multiple year drought. Or a billion other reasons.

queen cell

So I broke down my hive and wanted to cry. I had failed at my first attempt of keeping bees. Everyone told me not to take it personally, almost everyone fails their first year. I also heard of seasoned bee-keeper after bee-keeper losing their hives this winter. I decided to wait, and not get a new hive this year, and instead spend the year learning more and establishing more flowers in the garden to feed the bees.

breaking down the hive

But last week, as I was walking out the door to work, my neighbor came over and told me there were bees swarming near my bottle brush. Swarming is a natural happening, and is a group of bees, including a queen, looking for a new home. It’s amazing to see, and you can often catch them and rehome to your own hive.

{side note- I just figured out that I can embed youtube videos!}

At this particular time, I couldn’t do anything as I was headed to work. When I got home it was dark, and after much searching, discovered they were still clustered- high up in the bottle brush. There was no way to easily get to them, so Matt helped me clear out a ton of branches and managed to wedge the ladder in the right spot so I could climb up and observe closer. Since there was a hive’s worth, for free, in my tree, I was suddenly determined to capture them and keep bees again.

cluster

In theory, catching a swarm can be easy. Simply cut the branch they are on, or hit on the object to knock the mass of bees off into a container. However, these lovely bees were clustered AROUND the main trunk, making it impossible for me to just knock off. It was dark and I had no plan. I temporarily admitted defeat, and went over to a bee-keeping neighbor for advice. She suggested that I use one of her frames that still had honey in it, and hold it near the swarm in attempts to lure them on it, thus making it easier to remove from the tree.

So the next morning, I got up at the ass crack of dawn, put on my bee suit and, armed with the frame of comb and honey, climbed back into the tree. A few bees were interested and moved over to the frame, but not the whole cluster. So I propped the frame in the branches, took a deep breath of courage, and brushed as much of the cluster as I could into a bucket with my hand. I got about half of them, and the bees seemed content in the bucket, so I likely had the queen. From there, I dumped them into a hive box that I had set up under the tree.

{i love how you can hear the chickens AND the bees}

swarm captured

I should have stopped there. I’m pretty sure I had the queen, as worker bees were sticking around and waving their butts around, which is how they signal the other bees to come join them. But no, I had to push nature and instead of letting the bees do what they instinctively knew what to do, thought I could/needed/should get the other bees still remaining in the tree. So I brushed the remaining bees in the tree onto the frame of honey.  From there, I couldn’t figure out how to get the bees off and into the hive box, so I leaned it against the hive. I thought they would join the queen in the hive. Instead the bees came OUT of the box, and started to cluster on the ground and frame.

ground swarm

Fuck. I now had an empty hive box and a cluster of bees in the grass. I called in sick to work (thankfully, my boss is AMAZING and understands how important bees are) and I relocated the now empty hive box to its permanent location, in prep to receive the cluster. I scooped up as many of the clustering bees as I could into a cardboard file box, then left the box next to remaining cluster. I thought I was making progress- it seemed other bees were moving into the box, making me think I had the queen. So I moved the contents of the box into my hive. I figured the remaining bees clustered on the ground would come join the queen, in my hive. End of story, happily ever after, right?

bee box

Except I don’t think I got the queen, and she was still clustered in the grass. The bees started to leave the hive IMMEDIATELY, trying to get back to their queen. I tried to scoop up the remaining cluster and left the box back on the ground, hoping the rest would go inside.

I did a few errands, and when I came back, they were all gone. The bees in the hive were gone. The bees in the box were gone. The bees on the ground were gone. Gone Gone Gone. I’m sure they regrouped, the queen said “F this place, lets go”, and they swarmed off somewhere else. I hope they made it to a safe home. Its hard out there for a bee swarm, exposed to the elements and with many people not understanding and often intentionally killing them. I would have given them a good home, but obviously, I still need to learn more. I have now failed with bees twice. Here’s to hoping the 3rd times the charm!

flying bees

What to Do in the Garden: March

Signs of Spring are all around us. It is still a bit early to put out things like tomatoes and squash, but there are lots of opportunities to get out and play in the dirt! Its also a great time to go outside and observe the beauty all around! My fruit trees are in bud, I’ve got daffodils blooming, there is delightful green grass everywhere, and vineyards and fallow fields are awash in yellow mustards.

Sonoma County Spring
Sonoma County Spring

The Northern California & Sonoma County March Checklist:

  • Start seeds inside. If you haven’t seeded your tomatoes yet, do it now! Check out this post for my indoor seed starting setup. I start almost everything inside, so I’ll be starting squash, melons, cucumbers, and basil inside this month.
  • Sow seeds outside. Cool weather plants like kale, radish, lettuce and peas can be seeded or transplanted outside. Many flowers, like cosmos and nasturtiums, can be seeded or transplanted out later in the month as well.
  • Plant potatoes: If you haven’t bought your seed potatoes already, rush out to Harmony or do an online order today, because potatoes can go in the ground next week!
sprouting potatoes, from last year's planting
sprouting potatoes, from last year’s planting
  • Weed! As they say: “one year’s seeding makes seven year’s weeding”. Pull weeds as they appear, or at least before they flower and set seed. The somewhat soft ground from the meager rain we had in February have make this task a bit easier. Cover any bare ground with mulch to prevent a hostile take over.
  • Check your drip system, or install a system. Watering by drip is one of the best ways to conserve water, and pretty soon we will be in the middle of watering season. Check your existing system for cracks or leaks, repair as necessary, or put in a new system. Cover with mulch to protect the line from sun damage and retain moisture. Plus, it makes your yard look better.
  • Watch for aphids and other pests. Warmer weather means aphids are rapidly multiplying. Seemingly overnight I’ve got them clustered on my Cavolo Nero kale, artichokes and some of the remaining brassicas.  Blast away with a stream of water, make up a soapy spray, leave for the ladybugs to take care of, or declare defeat and feed the plant to the chickens. Snails and slugs are also out in full force.
and with warmer weather comes the aphids
and with warmer weather comes the aphids
  • Plant perennials and trees. Although it’s technically better to plant perennial shrubs and trees in the fall, there is a great selection entering the nurseries now. Green thumbs are itching to plant something, and perennials can meet that need.
  • Fertilize citrus, roses and other blooming plants if you didn’t do it last month.

rose

  • Build new beds or amend current ones. March is a great time to get a garden started or expand a current one. Dry stack rocks to create a raised bed perfect for flowers, or find some cedar or redwood lumber to make a deeper bed for veggies. Fill with high quality amended soil, or double dig compost into your native soil. I use Sonoma Compost’s Hi-Test soil for my raised beds, then supplement with organic fertilizers to meet the needs of that crop. Even if you aren’t planning on growing lots of veggies, plant some low water flowers like zinnias, cosmos or sunflowers to help out bees and birds.
  • Consider removing your lawn. Given our long hot summers, and the ever growing drought, lawns just don’t make sense for our climate. Consider removing your lawn by sheet mulching and planting low-water use landscaping plants or putting in an edible garden. Santa Rosa has a rebate program if you convert your lawn, and offer classes on how to do it. Keep an eye on Daily Acts‘s calendar, as they often holds work parties and workshops as well.

Personal homesteading tasks include getting more shelves up in the pantry, doing some hard core spring cleaning and de-cluttering, building new nesting boxes for the hens that are easier to clean, and painting the final bits of the house. Do you have any big March projects planned?


To own a bit of ground, to scratch it with a hoe, to plant seeds and watch their renewal of life—this is the commonest delight of the race, the most satisfactory thing a man can do”              –Charles Dudley Warner

Northern Ca Gardening Checklist March