Transitional Traditions

Short and Sweet

Transitional TraditionsWe canned our last pint of maple syrup yesterday. All told, between the first day we tapped and the final screw of the canning lid, the syrup season lasted three weeks.

As most of you are experiencing, spring showed up very early this year. Here in Wisconsin, the sap run began in late February, a full ten days earlier than last year. As novice sugarers, we were solidly caught off guard. It took us a week to get our supplies organized and secure a boiling apparatus, missing out on a solid portion of the drip-drip-drips running up the trees.

Sap Collecting Supplies

Drilling Holes

Close Up of Drill

Inserting the hoses

When we finally got our act together, the temps were reaching record highs in our area and the sap we’d collected was in danger of spoiling. This was not an issue we’d dealt with last year as the cool March temperatures had kept relatively steady. Because of this, we had not researched how to keep buckets of sap stored in warm temperatures. It was only after a full day of near 70 F that I read in our maple syrup handbook how sap should be treated like fresh milk. Fresh milk!? Our buckets were sitting outside in a warm microclimate, waiting in a neat little line to be added to our boiling trays! Blast!

As quickly as we could, we moved them into the cool of our breezeway but we did end up losing a few buckets to spoilage due to our negligence.

Last year, we detailed all the things we’d learned from the previous year and how to make a successful syruping season. The things we learned this year were mainly how every season is incredibly different and there’s no calendar page that’s going to signal the start of the sap run. In fact, I just opened our last jar of maple syrup from last year and the date on the can was April 4th! This means we were boiling down and canning for another two weeks last year! I can’t believe how fast this year went.

But as I look around our yard, all the snow is gone. The robins, geese and sandhill cranes bounce about our fields. The grass is green everywhere and the rains are a’pouring every day. Our March looks like last year’s April. I guess I should have paid more attention to the natural details all around me.

55 Gallon Drum

Another new item from last year is the fact that we were able to borrow a friend’s homemade sap boiler. It is a 55 gallon drum with a smokestack added to one end and door on the other. On the top, two openings have been cut to fit standard hotel boiler pans. The system is simple but effective; the firebox is protected inside the drum and the heat transfers to the sap-filled pans on top. The smoke goes out the smoke stack and any gaps are closed up with tin foil. After a while, the fire is burning cleanly enough to remove the tall chimney and just allow the heat to do its work.

Pouring in fresh sap

Fire box inside

Later, we filter the nearly finished syrup and bring it inside to finish it on the stove.

Boiling on the Stove

This year, we canned just under 3 gallons of syrup. Considering we lost a week of sap in the beginning and we lost about fifteen gallons of sap to spoilage, the harvest was pretty good. The ratio has been about one quart of syrup from each five gallon bucket of sap.

Sitting on the deck

Now, it’s time to clean up our work areas from the sticky sweet mess. Maybe next year, we’ll finally have this season figured out!

What a Mess

Sweat Equity

Transitional TraditionsIn winter months, when Wisconsin’s cold weather keeps us mostly indoors, our family has largely kept ourselves busy with home remodeling projects. When we moved into our home in mid-2013, we were excited beyond measure for this property’s “potential.” That’s a kind way of saying, we purchased a serious “Fixer-Upper.”

Not only was the home a base-model manufactured house, but the previous owner had been unable to properly care for it the last few years due to old age and disability. Because the house looked unkempt and incredibly dirty, we were able to purchase it for more than $30,000 below average price for a three bedroom home with seven acres of land.

You see, from the beginning, our entire vision of a cozy home was borne out of a belief that we could clean it, fix it and upgrade it over the next few years in order to really make it our own. That’s part of the beauty of sweat equity: you build not only a lovely home, but the self confidence to continue on this journey of skill-building and craftsmanship. Also, once you buy a lot of the tools you need, you will most certainly use them again, so the cost per project tends to go down each time (depending on what you are doing).

That vision has been countless hours of hard work and tenacity because for awhile, it seemed as though the task list only grew with each chore completed.

In the first few summers, our attention was turned to “taming” our outdoor property. The grass was overgrown or missing. The trees had been planted too close together and were now 15 years old and over crowded. There were dead bushes and trees all over. The fenceline along the road was one long matted mass of wild grapes, thornapple trees and sumac bushes. The lawn itself was undefined, with prairie flowers and random field stones sort of defining a border. After two summers of weed-wacking, chainsawing and pruning, I finally felt able to focus on a family garden. (I’ve written a lot about that already here).

Each winter brought us a new challenge inside the home. We began our first winter (2013-14) working on our kitchen. We removed a small wall, a row of upper cabinets and washed every square inch of the room. Next, we mudded the walls (our entire house was paneled with drywall and “finished” with small wooden strips to cover each drywall seam) and removed the flimsy baseboard. After that was completed, the next step was to paint. We wanted a farmhouse feel and chose a cheery New England blue for the walls. The walls had previously been covered in tiny floral print or poorly painted a teal blue by the previous owner.

This single step brought about so much unity and peace to the space that we left it at that for a little bit. But our cabinets begged for our attention. The cheaply made units were covered in wood-grain contact paper and all of it was peeling off (both by accident and by meddling little fingers). After several experiments and some trial and error, we decided to paint the cabinets white, after using a hair dryer to peel the rest of the wood-grain contact paper off. We removed all the drawers and doors and painted them with three coats of white cabinet paint. Before we put them back on, we spray painted all the knobs and hinges (and screw heads) an “oil-rubbed bronze” which brought them from nasty faux gold to farmhouse chic.

Attaching them back to the cupboard bases took very little time and suddenly we had a brand new kitchen!

However, we didn’t stop there. We wanted to get rid of all traces of brown in the kitchen, so we painted the trim above the walls. I can’t really call it crown molding because the material is one step up from cardboard. But painted white, it somehow seemed less cheap.

We also used some Christmas money and bought a beautiful high-necked oil-rubbed bronze faucet for our sink. It was both lovely and functional as our shallow sink and original faucet did not allow our large canning pots to fit in for washing.

The last thing to bring the kitchen up to par was to add a unique and inexpensive backsplash behind the stove. We couldn’t afford tile of any sort, but found a company called Fasade which makes thermoplastic panels to resemble old fashioned tin ceilings. It was the perfect way to make a lovely focal point in our freshly painted kitchen. Best of all, the total cost was only $100 and we were able to cover the entire back wall instead of just behind the stove.

While we were unable to do everything we’d hoped for (a refrigerator in the size our family needs is well beyond our budget right now, and the stained linoleum needs replacing soon), the changes we did make turned that room into a whole new living space. The best part of all? We did it nearly all by ourselves and it only cost about $500.

Fast forward to the winter of 2014-15 and our focus turned to our shabby bathrooms. My intent was just to mud the walls and paint away that nasty floral pattern (yes, the same pattern as the kitchen). But as we got going, we saw how a few Craigslist deals and unique flooring options allowed us to completely make them both over for less than $600.

The large cost was a new vanity for the second bathroom but it came on sale and we jumped on it. Removing the old vanity and getting the new one to fit around the plumbing proved more time consuming than we’d hoped. The other bathroom should have been easier as we kept the under-cabinets and only replaced the countertop.

But it wasn’t. It was even more work. The space for the master bathroom sink and cabinets was wedged between an outer wall and the wall of the shower. It was exactly 47.5 inches wide. All modern counters are made 48 inches long to allow for a little bit of overhang on the cabinets they sit upon. Our bathroom required no overhangs, but ordering a custom countertop (even a completely basic one) in the size we needed was hundreds of dollars. It was ridiculous. Then I found a 47-inch countertop on Craigslist for $60 and immediately went to buy it. We got it home and found out that it, too, was actually 48 inches long.

It was frustrating because we already had the original countertop and sink removed. The only thing we could think to do was cut a rectangle out of the wall and gently slide it in the space.

After the plumbing was hooked back up (another arduous task because apparently, in manufactured homes of our caliber, everything is made just a little bit smaller than standard sizes) we were free to use our bathroom again. Between the two bathrooms, we mudded and painted both rooms’ walls, covered the linoleum flooring with peel and stick tiles and replaced the sink faucets with oil-rubbed bronze counterparts. One was found on clearance at more than half off at a hardware store and the other was found for $5 at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore. In the master bathroom, I had pulled all the top molding off and discarded it with the intention of mudding the seams and getting rid of the molding altogether. This proved ineffective and I found myself wishing I could put the old trim back up. In the second bathroom, I learned from my mistake and simply painted the existing cheap trim white. It actually looks quite nice. We added white trim to the doors, baseboard and around one window in the master bath.

The color of the bathrooms is a cheery bright yellow. In a larger room, the color would be overwhelming, but in our small [essentially] windowless bathrooms, it serves its purpose to brighten the rooms up very effectively. We left the showers alone because they had funky shower heads and knobs that are usually only found in trailer homes. No suitable replacements could be found amongst the “normal” fixtures in retail stores.

The final large purchase we made was a faucet for our Roman tub in the master bath. The existing faucet was corroding and just looked plain ugly. We looked around and found a brand new oil-rubbed bronze faucet that would actually fit for $60 on eBay. For once, the plumbing swap was easy and by the book.

When we wrapped up our bathroom adventure, it was a full two months after we began. In fact, we still have a few minor things to wrap up in the master, but we keep putting off because we’re not sure how we want the final space to look. The second bathroom is completely done, however, and we are pleased with how it’s held up over the last year.

Now that brings me to the winter of 2015-16. That’s this year! We were no less busy. In fact, we began early! In November, we bought a used wood stove off Craigslist. For $600, we were able to get a large Vermont Castings wood stove with catalytic converter, all the stovepipe and chimney. We looked it up; the stove was eight years old and in perfect condition. The owner had moved to a home with a fireplace and this stove was taking up space in his garage. He just wanted it gone. The retail value for that exact stove (which is still in production) was well over $1700. We couldn’t believe it.

After bringing it home and cleaning it, we built a 4-foot x 4-foot x 6-inch platform for the stove to sit in our living room. We learned how to tile and put down natural slate tiles both on the platform and four feet up the wall behind. Then Andy’s parents built a homemade mantel to go behind the wood stove. We spray-painted the stove with specialized high temp stove paint. It went from chalky black to a lovely off-white, the perfect color to offset the dark slate tiles it would sit in front of.


Installing the stove took some help from a friend who does construction and my two dads. First we measured and cut a hole in the ceiling and roof. Then the chimney was installed and the roof shingles repaired. The next step was to build the platform and set it in place beneath the stovepipe hole in just the right spot. After that, we tiled the platform and waited a good long while for the slate to set. Finally, we brought the 500lb stove in, piece by piece and it still took three of us to lift it those six inches onto the platform. The last task was to build the stove pipe up and match it to the setting in the ceiling. Thankfully this went off with little trouble.

After it was all installed and sealed, we painted the stovepipe black (it was a little scuffed up from moving) and had the inaugural fire. A full month after beginning, the hearth was ready just in time for Christmas decorating. It made for a very cozy January and February as well!

The last place in our home that needed improving were the three bedrooms. They need new carpet, walls mudded and paint. Since carpeting is cost prohibitive, we are waiting on our tax returns. But everything else can be done with tools and know-how that we’ve built up from the last two winters of home improvements.


When we hit up our kids’ bedrooms, we had two kids per room and nothing whatsoever had been done to improve those rooms. No paint, no decor, nothing. The first step was to mud and sand all the drywall seams. Next, we used leftover kitchen paint to paint the first bedroom and effectively changed the entire room for the cost of about $20. Since the blue paint had been counted as cost for kitchen, that was free. The white paint we used for ceiling and window trim had been purchased a year ago for the bathroom cabinets. That was free. The five gallon bucket of mudding compound was brand new for this project, so that added $12. We already had all the tools and mudding tape. Free. We also needed to buy one door knob to replace an old, ineffective one on the main door. $8. The rest was just time and work.


We began on a Monday morning and had all the kids’ beds moved back into that one bedroom (a new set-up! all of them in one room!) by Thursday evening. During that time, we had also been working on the second bedroom, mudding and painting the trim. (more free improvements since we already had the supplies.) We did have to buy wall paint for this room; one gallon of orange for the accent wall and two gallons of a light beige for the other walls. But since we only used a half gallon of the beige (and the rest is intended for when we repaint our living room soon) I only count the cost of 1.5 gallons of paint. ($30). The next several days were spent painting and finishing the second bedroom which became our new Craft/Toy Room. By the following Monday, just one week of diligent work, the kids finally had a space in the house that was their own; to make crafts, to read, to play. It is a great set up because now they aren’t in the living room all the time with their toys, or in the kitchen all the time with their papers and markers and paints.


It’s also become a very cozy space for all of us and you’ll find Andy and I in the Craft room just as much as the kids.

Craft room


As it has now turned into March, I’m not sure we’ll get to our bedroom yet this winter. It, too, needs mudding, sanding and painting just to bring it up to par. We’d like to replace the carpet in there as well. I’m hoping that our ambition doesn’t wear thin. My garden is within a month of planting and I need to turn my attention to some serious planning in that arena.

All I know is this: after untold hours of work, work, work, we are finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. We aren’t done by a long shot, but it’s finally becoming the home we envisioned through all the clutter and dirt just three short years ago.

Our Homesteading Year in Review

Transitional TraditionsAs the final days and hours of 2015 tick down one by one, I have to look back on this busy year and just marvel at all the was accomplished. In the moment, in the the craziness of life, it seems as though very little was getting done. However, the fruit of our labor is plain to be seen as we are finally able to sit back and breathe a little.


I think the easiest way to sum it up is to go from month to month:

January: We ordered our seeds in preparation for a large preserving garden. There are few plans online or in the books for how to plan and order a garden of the magnitude we were hoping for: 500 square feet, give or take. A lot of my winter hours were spent sketching and erasing on graph paper just what we would plant and where.

February: We waited until the end of the month, then began racks and racks of seedlings in an indoor greenhouse. It was just one of those cheap stands you can get at any hardware store, but the seedlings sprouted right away. New for me was beginning flowers indoors. I was hoping for a cottage garden this year; a mix of veggies and flowers for a lovely destination garden.

March: Our seedings were doing well, but getting gangly. I needed to get them some substantial sunlight and soon. Luckily, spring began right on time in March, so while the seedlings grew, we scrambled to get our sap buckets ready for the annual sap run. The rest of the month was filled with five gallon buckets of tree water and various attempts to boil down the sap into sweet sticky syrup. It was also this month that I gave up homeschooling and sent the oldest two back to our public school. The younger two were still home with me but with the removed stress of schoolwork, I was able to dive head first into Spring. In March, we began plotting out and fencing in our cottage garden.


April: We got unexpected day-old chicks from a friend and rigged up a make-shift brooder to keep them warm until we could get them a home outside. We finished boiling all our maple sap this month and canned a total of 18 quarts of syrup from 210 gallons of sap. We built seven raised beds from used bleachers found on Craigslist and filled them with compost from my parents' farm across the street. Early crops were planted in our straw bale cold frame and the seedlings were moved outside to harden off.

May: We finished filling the raised beds with compost, rototilled the ground to make regular rows in the rest of the garden and planted as many veggies and plants as we could. We added a patio table and umbrella for much needed shade and kept trying to keep the raiding raccoons out. Between digging our compost and killing the chickens, we were at our wits end with our raccoon troubles. The chicks were beginning to outgrow their brooder but we had no place to separate them from the rest of the flock. They were too small to defend themselves yet from the pecking order but too large to stay in our make-shift brooder much longer.



June: One raccoon raid took out all but two of our laying hens and both our bantam roosters. Devastated and heartbroken, we tried to trap and kill the animals to no avail. All our live traps were completely broken apart by the large and vicious animals. However, we were able to move our 6 week old chicks into the hen house now that no one was around to pick on them. The final raised beds in our garden were planted and the harvest had already begun in full swing. My entire focus swung from household duties to garden duties and every single day from this point on was spent in the garden. The fence was a great way to keep toddlers in with me. We added a kiddie pool and garden toys to help keep his interest.

July: The garden got a new gate; a lovely hand built piece of art from my in-laws. It brought the garden to a whole new level of beauty. With everything in full bloom, there was something to do every day. Our chickens were growing well and we acquired some older hens from a friend to help add eggs to our diet again. The mulberry trees ripened early in the month and we spent the next two weeks harvesting and preserving mulberries a number of ways. The mulberry jam didn't set well, but made an excellent syrup for ice cream, oatmeal and any number of other sweet treats.

August: We attended a Mother Earth News Fair in Wisconsin (yay!) and got so many ideas for greater self sufficiency. Immediately we bought a feeder pig from some friends and set up a pen and shed for him. We named him BaconFace to help us remember that he would not be a long term friend on our homestead. Additionally, our kids attended their first County Fair through the local 4H club. It was a great time of learning and hard work.



September: Our unexpected chicks began laying their first eggs; deep chocolate brown characteristic to the Black Copper Marans breed. The garden hit its harvest stride, providing more cucumbers than we'd ever seen and all manner of broccoli, beets, carrots, tomatoes, peppers and much more. Canning season was well under way and for the first time since we had harvest gardens, I was doing most of the canning work all by myself. In order to keep up with the produce, I canned several batches per day, keeping just ahead of the pack. Elly, Ethan and now Liam returned to public school for the year. Andy returned as well, beginning his final semester of school with hopes of graduating with a bachelor's degree in December.



October: Garden still going strong, canning still a daily task and the first frost came more than ten days later than usual. Even then, it wasn't a killing frost and our plants stretched their production well into the end of the month. Early October and we helped Andy's parents build us a deck. The deck was a Christmas gift to us and an Anniversary gift to themselves, considering they spend four-five days a week in the warm seasons helping us on the homestead. It was a welcome addition to our little house and we even added a door in a wall that only had a window so we could walk directly onto the deck from our kitchen. Mid-October, Andy had to leave his full time job. Suddenly we were without an income but with a distinct sense that we weren't to be pursuing other work just yet. He still had full time school and now with so many hours back at the house, we began getting homesteading projects done en masse.


November: We closed down half the garden in October but still harvested carrots, beets and broccoli, along with spinach, lettuce and cilantro all through November. We moved our large compost pile to the garden with the help of my father's large Ford tractor. There we piled plants that had died along with the mangled straw from our cold frame in order to create more compost right there in the garden for 2016. We built a homemade smoker using our existing charcoal grill and some cinderblocks from the store in preparation for the end of BaconFace and his meat preservation. Mid-November, Andy and I found a used wood stove on Craigslist and bought it. The next three weeks were spent installing the stove in our living room and cutting deadwood on our property lines so we might have a back-up heat source in the cold of winter. Still canning our fermented veggies and harvesting fresh from the garden due to the unusually long Fall temperatures.



December: The first week of December I finally decided to harvest the last of our carrots and make another sweep of the broccoli heads that just refused to quit. There had only been one hard freeze in all that time and the veggies seemed unaware that we were coming up on the first day of Winter. Everything else had finally died or been fully harvested at this point. In the kitchen we were busy making bone broths and pressure canning meat from our freezer in order to make room for our hog. For days on end, the house smelled of savory beef or chicken and many a meal was had just by snacking on the ample containers of cooked meat waiting to be canned. Canning meat takes a little bit of effort but ensures safe food if the electricity goes out. Mid-December and still the temps hadn't reached a freezing point. Green grass all around and even some flowers were holding on, but we couldn't wait any longer to butcher our pig. BaconFace was well above market weight and beginning to consume much more feed. With the critical help of two dear friends, Andy butchered our pig in our back yard and spent the rest of the day with them learning how to skin the animal, portion out the primal cuts and then reduce the cuts down to usable sizes. He also began curing the bacon sides and hams. One week later, we watched him walk across the stage of his university as he grabbed that diploma he'd been working towards the last two full years. It was a monumental day and one we won't soon forget. The day before Christmas, we finally processed the last of our food harvest. Between the gardens, the berries and the animals, we had been actively preserving food for the last six months straight! It felt good to finally pack all the equipment away. Just yesterday, we tried the first of the smoked hams, raised by us and preserved by us in our homemade smoke house. It was delicious!


And now, with January just around the corner, the cycle will begin anew. I think we'll take a few days off to decompress and evaluate all that was accomplished this year. We couldn't have done it without help and we are very grateful for all those who helped make our 2015 a little brighter and closer to the land.

Then again, we did just get a few seed catalogs in the mail this week. Hmmmm ... maybe I'll take a day off tomorrow.

An Autumn Sort of Garden

Transitional TraditionsIt's the last week of October and I fully expected to have a brown, sleeping Cottage Garden by now. My last post which was written in the height of harvest season was a full two months ago and even then I anticipated an early October bedtime for this plot of land and to be totally finished with canning, harvesting, preserving and fermenting.

The difference between this year and others is two-fold. First, our area of Wisconsin was gifted a mild start to fall and we didn't even see a light frost until the middle of October (this is late). Second, for the first time in my gardening life, I had planted seeds in July and August in hopes of a late season garden.

It may sound silly to you veteran gardeners out there that I had never done this before, but it's true. Ever since my first foray into a serious garden, I had never considered anything past the initial spring planting. What resulted was a lot of long season crops or fallow ground. I had no such aspirations this year either until a friend of mine gave us a bunch of started broccoli and eggplant and peppers well into June. We had the space, but I feared the plants wouldn't produce in time.

Later, as my peas and beans ended, she encouraged me to replant with other crops like beets, lettuces and radishes for a late season harvest. I had the seeds, but lacked the experience. I waited until the last recommended planting dates for these crops in my heat zone and planted. What did I have to lose?

Early October Garden

Now, more than two months later, my family is enjoying fresh beets, carrots, and kale. My tomatoes and peppers and eggplants waved goodbye just over a week ago with the first light frost. My lovely cut flowers and marigolds and herbs are browned husks from that same frost. But standing with robust vigor and cheer are my broccoli plants, carrot stems and beet greens. A garden that I expected to be fully dead and brown is still thriving and giving us whole, nutrient-dense food!

Late October Garden

The radishes are crazy huge so we just pull those and give them to our pig. He loves them. The peas weren't very happy with the light frost and quit producing, so those plants go to BaconFace as well.

Cabbage harvesting with Andy

Just recently, we pulled up all our cabbages and beets to prepare for a large fermentation push. Fermented foods are important to add to a diet and we love being able to make them here at home for pennies. We'll make beet kraut, kimchi, kvass, and good old fashioned sauerkraut.

We are enjoying the continued harvest from the Cottage Garden. With the way our Autumn is headed, we should be pulling fresh food from the soil well into November. Maybe by then I can write about how we put our cottage garden to bed. Finally.

Finding Peace and Joy in My Craigslist Garden

Transitional TraditionsOver the last six months, my family and I have worked hard to build a garden out of a barren hay field. When we began, it was merely a roughed out area in March, just north of the mound system and within 100 feet of our yard. It was cold, muddy and only the earliest of wild mustards and clovers were daring to peek up above the ground.

But in my mind's eye, a single vision kept me going. I pictured a beautiful fenced-in garden with flowers and veggies mixed with herbs and raised beds. I pictured warm breezes and sparkling sunshine, offset by some sort of patio-type sitting area with shade. The borders would hold myriad flowers for my vases and viewing pleasure. The wide beds would hold bounties of vegetables to feed and nourish my family. The work would be unending and cyclical. All that, I was able to imagine as we pounded T-posts into the barely thawed ground.

This vision came to me in full and glorious reality this past weekend.


garden trug filled with fresh produce  new broccoli

in the garden

Everything was there! Everything was thriving! The garden was not only feeding us, it was nourishing us as well. About a month ago, the garden was given the gift of a beautiful hand-crafted gate, which my mother and father-in-law took upon themselves to build and install. That act of love, a self-less contribution to my garden endeavor, gives me joy every time I get to walk through it. And what's more, the gate is so lovely that it takes the whole space into a whole new level.

the garden gate

I can't in good consciousness call it my Craigslist Garden anymore. It's just too wonderful. It is now my Cottage Garden and everyone is welcome. Come, sit a spell and draw in strength and peace from the beauty all around you. In just a short month or so, the season will be drawing to a close and we will begin the process of closing down the Cottage Garden. Until then, all the long hours, the physical labor, the tears of frustration and the sunburned arms ... that doesn't matter to me anymore.

Andy in the garden   tomatoes

a bird's nest among the tomatoes  flowers along the fence

the children help in the garden 

It was all worth it. All of it. You know why? I've never had a place such as this that brought me joy just to know I am in the middle of it. I hope you, too, have found a place that offers such peace and recharging as my garden does for me.

And my family.

Finn and a green pepper

More News From the Craigslist Garden

Transitional TraditionsWhen I left you, it was early May and very few items had been planted. In that time, we have constructed seven raised beds, tilled out three 20-by-3-foot rows and three 40-by-3-foot rows. Everything has been planted and we are harvesting various lettuces, peas and beets. The radishes have come and gone, and even the salad greens themselves are about to give their final cutting.

Shortly after that was accomplished, I found another Craigslist gem: a wooden cable spool just right for a patio table. With my parents' unused umbrella for shade and random lawn chairs, we had a cute sitting area for taking breaks or enjoying guests. You can see it in the photo below.

our Craigslist patio 

In late May, I got some started tomato and pepper plants from a friend who runs a CSA on her farm. They are doing well! We also got some broccoli and kale plants from her, which are producing leaves for us every day. The broccoli heads are just starting to form.


We planted three kinds of decorative corn (sweet corn is being grown by my family across the street) and placed watermelon, gourds and honeydew in between the corn rows. Over time, the corn will grow high and the melons will cover the ground, making a nearly Three Sisters Planting, but in row form. We prefer the ease and abundance of bush beans over climbing beans, so don't put those into the corn rows.

corn and melons

There are cabbages, cauliflower and kale. I interplanted my snap bean rows with Cosmos flowers, which will be taller than the 2-foot bean plants and complement them nicely by mid-summer.

beans and Cosmos

Some of the raised beds had to wait until first-crop hay was off the ground so we could borrow my father's loader tractor. We needed to dig up four buckets' worth of compost to complete the garden. This was finally accomplished mid-June over the course of two days.

the tractor loader

one filled raised bed and one waiting to be filled.

Suddenly it was late June and I realized I had time-sensitive plants that still hadn't been seeded. Top of my list was our cucumbers. In order to have any season for pickling and fresh eating, I needed to get them in the ground yesterday! My friend Rita came to the rescue. She had a bunch of started plants left from her own garden adventures and offered to come help me finish planting and add some of her own flavor to the Craigslist Garden.

In two days, the four remaining raised beds were planted with cukes, dill, broccoli, eggplant and carrots. She also added more peppers to our pepper row and interplanted more broccoli in the cabbage row where some of the cabbages had died. One raised bed is dedicated to nothing but kitchen herbs.

filled raised beds

The garden looks good. I keep it mowed in between beds about once per week. Our second crop of peas is flowering while the first crop is ripening the last of their pods. When our lettuce is finished, we will tear most of it out and replant with more beets, carrots and herbs.

But not everything has been smooth sailing. Do you remember that our greatest plant predator was going to be deer? Well, we never got those 8-foot poles up around the perimeter. I bought all the supplies for electrifying the fence and my dad gave us a fence charger, which is installed on the side of our house. Everything is in place to electrify the lower part of the fence and the upper. But when we went to install the post adapters, we found that the snow fence had been installed with the T-posts on the inside and the post adapters wouldn't fit through. So now it all sits in a corner, while who keeps breaking in night after night? Not a deer. A raccoon family!

the messed up straw bale

They aren't interested in my plants. They simply dig through the new compost. It wasn't an issue until we had plants planted and they dug them up or scattered the seeds. When the compost apparently lost its appeal, they turned to our straw-bale cold frame and began tearing that apart. I had intended to keep using the cold frame, to extend the season in the fall. But you can see that the bale is smitherenes and it's not the only one.

The raccoons keep returning through a corner of fence that had a small break in the wooden slat. I keep repairing it and they keep pulling the boards out to scramble through. We put live traps in one night. We caught a small juvenile and took care of him. The next night I put the same trap closer to the entryway. The next morning, however, the trap had been ruined. The ground around the trap was all torn up and the marshmallow was gone, the trap was closed and there was no raccoon anywhere. I couldn't figure it out; everything pointed to a caged animal. Then I looked closely at the door and saw it had physically been bent outward and the 'coon must have squeezed underneath to escape.

We had three live traps. Now all three are toast. Broken in one way or another by supernatural raccoons intent on our compost or our hens.

I finally pounded in a metal bar in the place they kept entering and haven't had trouble since that time. I'm not resting on that solution, though. It won't be long before they find another weak point in the fence. I'm hoping we can figure out an electric solution soon. I like our Craigslist Garden and want to see it in order, producing food and flowers.

Veronica flowers by the fence

Have you had super-strength raccoons by you? What did you do?

Building a Craigslist Garden

Transitional TraditionsLast year we wanted a garden, but the deer population, along with rabbits, racoons and squirrels, really put a damper on that. We have five tillable acres that we could use for a garden, but without a fence and some attempts at protection, growing that garden would merely be an effort in keeping the wildlife population fat and happy. We grew a small container garden on the south wall of our house and had a nice little "fresh-eating" garden.

Container garden

This year, I got the idea of finding used fence on Craigslist. For $300, we picked up 1,200 linear feet of snow fence. I know snow fence is not deer fence and at 4 feet tall, barely enough to give them pause. However, with some modifications to the visual height as opposed to the actual height, we think we can fool those graceful animals into leaving our veggies alone. The slats in the fence are close enough together that we think the rabbits will have a hard time wiggling through. As for racoons, my farmer father says we can rig a single line of electric fence to the T-posts about six inches off the ground and that will keep them from climbing over or climbing under.


The deer will be the true issue. Andy and I plan to attach flexible posts normally used for temp fencing to the existing T-posts. Hooked to the T-posts, the extra height should reach 8 feet. We will then (or maybe before we attach them) string flat, white horse tape fencing. This will line the 300-foot perimeter, making the fence look much taller than it is.


This is all in theory. I'm praying it works. Right now, the snow fence is up and we have attached an old dog kennel gate to the one opening into the garden. The gate will keep deer out and toddlers in. (Just while I'm out there working, of course!)




Mid-March came through nice and sunny. While we were boiling away at sap, we were also constructing a makeshift cold frame for the garden. We took small straw bales from my father's farm next door and made a sort of raised bed from them. The row is about 18 feet long and 2 feet wide. We took my dad's loader tractor and dug up some nicely composted manure from the farm and dumped it in. Then I asked to borrow some old storm windows from the farm house and laid them over the top of the bales.


After the super cold temps of March returned, I held off planting anything until the first or second of April. We planted radishes, salad mixes and peas. Volunteer Lamb's Quarter came up everywhere, and I left them because they easily replace spinach as a green and grow a heckuva lot easier! Every few days I water them. Everything is looking great so far!

The rest of the garden is untilled. We have heavy dark clay soil and it holds moisture forever. Great for dry years. Unworkable in wet ones. Having dealt with this soil all my life, I knew that if we were going to have this garden be effective, we would need raised beds. In the very least to increase drainage, but also to allow for solid pathways in between beds. I intended to cover the paths with mulch, but a thin layer of white clover has already filled in the gaps and will make an excellent cover crop for walking on. I will have to mow it occasionally, but I will leave large enough gaps in between the wide beds so the push mowers will zip right through.

You see, I want an English style cottage garden. The perimeter will be all wildflowers and cut flowers. (We rototill that area this Saturday). The interior will be raised beds (I hope to have seven by the end of the season) and on the ground beds. Some crops, like melons and corn and sunflowers, won't need raised beds.

About the raised beds: I thought that was a dream for next year since we invested so much money into the fencing already. But searching on Craigslist again I stumbled upon a high school selling old wooden bleachers. Apparently the 40-year-old planks were yellow pine and averaged 1-inch-by-8-inches-by-17-feet. Eighteen feet long! And they wanted $2 per board.


I just about leapt out of my skin. I was seriously thinking, "What would Hank Will do?" Buy the whole lot, that's what! I talked to my father again, and he got excited for the bunch given that it's high quality lumber at a crazy price. We offered the seller a deal for the whole bunch, and he took it. The next day, we borrowed a trailer and drove south to the small town high school. The boards were single tree planks. No seams or MDF to be seen. The shop kids were outside and loaded the trailer for us. For $150, Dad and I got 80, 17-foot pieces of lumber. Some of the planks still have numbers painted on them, which give them a lot of character. I took about half of the cost and Dad covered the rest.


We decided to make seven raised beds. At 12 feet long and about 4 feet wide, each bed required two boards to make. That's $4 right there. Then we hand cut some of the narrow bleacher boards into 3-inch-by-2-foot stakes. These will be pounded in periodically on the sides of the beds to help the 1-inch-thick boards support the soil we will add. This adds about one more dollar to the overall raised bed cost. Next, we purchased premium grade 2x4s at $2.30 each. These will brace the corners of each bed. Add in a box of deck screws and the total cost for each garden bed will come out to be about $6.50.


Folks, $6.50 is hard to beat. I realize they are not cedar or rot resistant, and most beds are made with two-by's. But come on, would you turn this down? Not if you read GRIT!


So far, we have two beds screwed together and staked in. It's been a challenge to drive our homemade stakes into our hard-as-rock clay ground, but with each stake, my parents-in-law make the process more streamlined and efficient. I really appreciate their immense help. And I appreciate my father's help in cutting all the wood pieces with his table saw.

Even though our Craigslist cottage garden is in our back field, it is turning out to be a community garden after all! I will keep you up to date on the progress of our scrapyard gardening.