A Year Ago We Bought a House- a look at accomplishments, failures, and the long way we have to go

One year ago, we bought a house. Matt and I embarked on our first experience as home owners, and we began the first year of turning our newly purchased half acre and 1940’s house into a home and an urban farm. This is a reflection of the past years accomplishments, failures, and what I hope this second year will bring.

buying the houseThe house purchase it self was a huge accomplishment. Our fabulous relator found us this place after only looking for a few weeks, but the buying and mortgage process was horrible. If something could have gone wrong, I’m pretty sure it did. The appraisal fell short of our offer, making us have to re-negotiate with the sellers half way though. A loan we were counting on didn’t get approved, and we had only a few hours to come up with thousands of dollars or we had to back out. Our mortgage company was the biggest ass and would go weeks without returning our emails. When everything finally worked out, and we got the keys, we had less than 48 hours to move out of, and clean, the apartment. The first night we were in the house I got super sick, and spent the next day of trying to move and clean while throwing up and with a fever.

Our house had renters for a few years, until it was put on the market, and we bought it. During this time, and probably long before it, the half acre of land basically sat abandoned. Blackberries, weeds, and naturalized bulbs took over. Rose and fruit trees sprawled unpruned. Sheds rotted and leaked away. But the weekend we moved in the yard was beautiful, despite its neglect. The fruit trees had started to bud and everything was green. I looked past the flaws and saw the vast open space and visualized what the yard could become. Since then, we’ve cleared, built, removed, trimmed, and generally made a mess. Its a constant work in progress, and while I wish that magically it was “all done”, each day brings us closer to what we visualize.

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back of yard, now.jpgThe first big project of this first year was to eradicate the blackberries. They took up a significant section of the East side of the property. After months- MONTHS- of clipping and hacking and perpetually having scratch marks and puncture wounds, then digging and pulling up the roots, we had the main mass gone. Then we discovered we also had trumpet creeper, another super invasive plant. Easier to clip than thorny berries, but harder to dig out. In their place, we built the hen house and chicken run, knowing that the hen’s constant scratching would any missed sprouts at bay. We used the back wall of the run as the back for the compost piles. Now, particularly after the rain, we have a handful of blackberry sprouts that have emerged from missed roots, but we are able to dig them up with relative ease. The trumpet creeper is coming back with a vengeance, and needs significantly more work.

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Another big project was to put up a fence along the East property line. On this side, we have 3 neighbors. The front house has a nice, solid professionally done fence. The middle neighbor had a ridiculously old and janky ‘fence’ that was being held up solely by the blackberry mass. Once the berries were gone, the boards fell over. The back neighbor had a stretch of no fence, and then a section of older fence that was angled in from the property line, but it was standing. We built our fence continuing from the nice front fence back to the standing section of the back neighbors.

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From the first weekend we moved in, I started the observation period. We had no plan to do any major permanent garden until I knew where the sun shined and the shadowed dwelled, ideally observed for a year. But I wasn’t going to wait a full year to have homegrown produce, so I put in a temporary garden. We dug holes in the ground, filled them with compost, planted our plants, and surrounded the area with straw to “keep the weeds at bay”. It was a complete failure. Turkeys ate or trampled any starts that managed to come up, the weeds overgrew everything, what food was produced with bitter or tough, and pests- like corn earworms- devastated crops. By August, we gave up.

After accepting defeat and letting the hens take over, I tested our soil, and I realized we were lacking nutrients. So in the Fall, we built some temporary raised beds from fence scraps and miscellaneous bits, in the location I thought we would do our permanent beds, and filled with compost. I planted garlic bulbs and a variety of winter veggie starts. Except then it never rained, and I didn’t water, so our crops of cabbage, garlic and broccoli never took off. Garden failure, round two. We finally got some rain, and our cover crops and veggies thrived. The broccoli has long bolted, but we’ve been eating off the spinach, kale and chard for the past few months. In January, we planted bare root trees and started building our permanent raised beds. Our temporary, short fence board beds are still here and are planted, but we will eventually replace with taller, permanent beds. We got the permanent asparagus bed up and planted, and another permanent bed made that currently has with potatoes growing. I’ve also got carrots, peas and salad crops, plus calendula coming up. In the next few weekends, 2 more permanent beds will be built and filled with compost to plant tomatoes and the other summer veggies.

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We’ve mowed down most of the cover crop, which was a huge success and significantly improved the soil. Before, I could barely sink my shovel into the ground and I didn’t see a worm for the first 8 months. Our soil still isn’t ideal, but I can dig and I’m finding worms in every turn of soil that I make. The 25 yards of compost we’ve brought in, plus a truckload of horse manure, have helped a lot. There is another 20 yards of compost delivered yesterday in my front yard right now that’s awaiting to be wheelbarrowed around to the back.

The most recent project was to take down a shed that sat directly behind the house. It acted as the temporary chicken house until we could get ours built, but it was super ugly, old and not worth saving. Based on what I have been able to glean from the random construction and things left in it, I think in the past it was used as a hen house, a tool shed, and then a laundry room. We already have a garage for storage, so it wasn’t worth trying to make water tight. So down it went. I’m still working on sorting what boards are salvable and pulling out the hundreds of nails that held this thing together since the 40’s. I’ve also been working on chipping away the concrete patio. This shed has a smaller brother right next to it, the well pump shed, that is equally as ugly and rotting away. As soon as I’ve got the wood sorted and cleaned up from this demo, that one will be coming down as well.

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shed now.jpgAnother accomplishment I’m proud of has been getting to know our neighbors and establishing relationships in our new community. I’m a firm believer that you should know your neighbors, and it pays to invest the time to be friendly. It’s always worked out for me before- I’m still best friends with my next door neighbors from where I grew up, and we regularly still visit and talk with our apartment neighbors from Petaluma. To get to know people, as soon as I moved in, I knocked on doors or simply introduced myself as people walked by. Stella now has 2 regular play-dates, I can greet people by name when I see them, I’ve got a few egg customers, and I know who I can ask to borrow a lemon or some sugar.

So what does the second year of our urban homesteading adventure have in store? I desperately want to paint the house. I HATE the 1000-island-dressing-apricoty color. I’m in process of picking out the perfect gray, but having a hard time finding the right shade that doesn’t look washed out in the full sun that beats down on the front South-facing side. The hen house still needs a bit more work- I need to finish putting up trim and painting it whatever color we paint the house. Right now their rain cover is a janky concoction of sheet metal we hauled up from the apartment’s coop, propped up on limbs and scrap wood, so thats also on the to-do list. We desperately need to re-hang the gutters on our house. We are hoping to add a rain water catchment system, both from the hen house and ours. The garden is in constant development and hopefully we can do some landscaping in the front. I’d love to get bees and rabbits to add to the flock of creatures.

The first year was aimed at planning and starting the garden. The second year will continue that, but our main focus will be to work on the house. It was sold essentially flipped- the original owner had passed away, and one of the kids gutted and replaced with Home Depot’s cheapest and most boring everything. While I wish- WISH- there was still the original 40’s kitchen and interior, I’m thankful all the windows were replaced and a central heating system installed. Our list includes upgrading the electrical system, installing an instant hot water heater, and the biggest thing: reconfigure the kitchen’s interior walls to make it larger, add a walk-in pantry, get a working dishwasher, remove the god-awful tile countertop, and OHMYGOD get better kitchen lighting that the current one boob-light.

Thanks for joining me on the second year adventure!

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7 thoughts on “A Year Ago We Bought a House- a look at accomplishments, failures, and the long way we have to go

  1. Hi Melissa,

    What an inspiring post. I love your then and now pictures! I wandered over to your blog from Dog Island Farm and was interested to read that you have a BA in Environmental Studies and grew up in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Me, too–at least the ENVS part (from UCSC). And, my grandma grew up on a Santa Cruz Mountains fruit ranch.

    I’m jealous of your half acre and can’t wait to follow along as you embark on your second year adventure. Good luck with getting your farm stand up and running.

    Sarah

  2. You two are so dang cute in that first photo. You’ve really done a lot in a year. It’s inspirational, really. Every time I walk in my own yard I see so much that needs to be done. I am motivationally challenged it seems.

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