House on the Hill WV

Date Nights on the Homestead

Heidi NawrockiAh, yes, date nights. I remember those days. Back when my husband and I lived in town and had no children. Fast forward to reality, though ... 53 acres and two kids. Date nights are nearly nonexistent now. Especially date nights that require leaving the house.

But that doesn’t mean date nights can’t still be fun! You just have to get a little more creative. And you can also get some of those things checked off the to-do list!


1. Brew beer or make wine together! A few years ago, my husband started making wine, and beer followed closely after. It’s a fun project to bottle up the beer or wine after the kids go to bed. Not only do we plan the garden seasonally, but my husband plans his libations accordingly. He makes sure to have a white wine bottled for summer and red for the winter. And after you’re done bottling, you can enjoy a glass of wine together!

2. Shell dried beans. Hear me out on this one — dried beans are the lazy gardener’s best friend. You spend some time planting in the early summer and then you spend some time shelling them later in the season. No canning, freezing, or drying required! So, grab a glass of that homemade wine and chat about your homestead plans with your spouse.

3. Weed the garden. Yes, another menial chore that can be made fun when done together. Playing in the dirt is therapeutic to me, and it helps to have somebody around to talk to. My husband does the grunt work with the hoe, and I do the finesse work around the plants. Date night and a free manicure!

4. Preserve the harvest. Have a plethora of beets? Pickle ‘em! Too many tomatoes? Make some salsa, or hot sauce, or just plain tomato sauce. The job doesn’t necessarily go quicker with two people, but once you get a rhythm down, it can be really fun. And when you pop open that jar of beets or salsa, you can be taken back to that summer night of canning in the kitchen!

5. Put the chickens up and go for a walk! Around the yard, of course, and be sure to talk about your hopes and dreams for the space for the future. Or, lay down in the yard and look at the stars. Or sit down and watch the sunset!


See, there are ways to sneak in a “date night” and still be productive!

Want to see what’s going on at our homestead? Check out my blog and Instagram!

Spring Arrives at the Hill

Heidi NawrockiIt's April 9 and as I sit here writing this, snow is falling and the wind is blowing. We are to get record low temperatures here tonight in West Virginia. This is after a few weeks of 70 degree temperatures. Ah, Mother Nature, you finicky girl, you! But, the cold weather will be short lived and projects will pick up with full speed around the homestead.

There's already been some work this spring, though. We have started our orchard! We planted 6 apple trees and 3 cherry trees last weekend. I'm particularly excited for the apple trees as they are all heirloom varieties. We bought a “cider assortment” and I see a homemade cider press in the future! My husband enjoys making wine, brewing beer, and making hard cider. Last spring he planted grape vines, this year is apples...who knows, maybe next year will be hops?

Another addition this spring is new chicks! We ordered some chicks to add color to the egg basket. We were so thrilled to get the call the other day that they were at the post office, but were a little disappointed to see that some had not made the trip and we lost a few more in the first 24 hours. I'm chalking it up to the colder temperatures and what seemed to me like an extraordinarily lengthy trip. The remaining chicks are doing well and running around like crazy! My son is hoping to go to the feed store on Monday to pick up a few other chicks to replace the ones we lost. I think I'll be open to the idea!

buff cochin chick

We have started our tomato, pepper, and herb plants. We just ordered a legitimate grow light the other day as our plain old fluorescent bulbs aren't cutting it. Our tomatoes have legs to make one jealous! But, I know with the proper lighting, they'll be strong and ready to go in the garden later next month.

My project for the snow day is to plan the chicken coop landscaping. We planned and built our own coop based around the passive solar design of our home. We have only managed to get it primed (chalk it up to life with two little kids, a husband with a full time job, and the weather), but this spring it will get an overhaul – I'm excited to add in some beneficial plants surrounding it to attract the pollinators for the garden and to provide more shelter for our free ranging girls.

Happy Spring!

The Mystery Egg

Heidi NawrockiWhen you embark on the journey of producing your own food, you learn a LOT of things. If you live in a climate that has a clearly defined winter like I do, you learn that garden fresh tomatoes aren't an option in the middle of winter. And you learn to appreciate the sauce that you have canned or frozen because supermarket tomatoes are no match for the juicy goodness of a warm tomato out of the garden. You also learn if you keep chickens that eggs are a scarcity in the winter. Sure, you can put artificial light into your coop to keep your hens' production up. But, I fall into the camp of allowing my girls some rest during the shortest days of the year.

One thing I usually have to explain to people that it is not the temperature that keeps hens from laying, but the length of the day. As the solstice approached this year, eggs were few and far between. We didn't get any new pullets this spring, so our hens all went through a molt this fall and many were still not back to laying. Some days I would get one egg, while other days I might not get any. With holiday baking behind me, I just started rationing our egg consumption — because just like store bought tomatoes, I don't care for supermarket eggs. There are a number of reasons why, but taste ranks highly on that list.

As the days have been getting longer, I've been getting more eggs each day. When Jonas hit a few weeks ago and the hens refused to leave their coop, I got six eggs one day! Jackpot for eleven hens in the middle of January. Recently when I went to check the nesting boxes for eggs, I noticed something strange. In the middle nesting box, where no eggs generally are laid, I noticed something that resembled an egg. It was tiny, but was shaped and colored just like the big eggs. I brought it into the house and weighed it. It weighed 12 grams. A quick Google search yielded a figure of 36 grams for an average Bantam egg. I have all heavy breeds and no new layers, so this egg was quite an anomaly.

My husband and I joked, wondering if the hen even felt it when she laid it! When we cracked it, there was no yolk. We didn't think too much of it, but I made a mental note to keep an eye out for more small eggs. Lo and behold, a few days later, I got another small egg. Some internet searching turned up a common term of “fairy egg” for a small egg that a full size hen lays. When something foreign enters the hens oviduct or some other piece of reproductive tissue, an egg is formed.

Fairy egg

A few days later, I found another small egg, but one that was about twice as large as the previous fairy eggs. This egg still lacked a yolk, but is at least getting larger! Our hens free range and I'm not sure which egg comes from which hen, so I've been keeping an eye on them for any odd behavior — other than running screaming through the yard when I toss out some kitchen scraps. So far, so good. I'm hoping it is just a product of starting to lay again after a nice break to grow out shiny new feathers. In the meantime, we have coined a new term. Toot egg. It seems as though the hen might have tooted and out popped an egg. We still wonder if she even felt it!

Check out my farm Facebook page for updates on what's happening on our hill!

The Miracle of Coop Curtains

Heidi NawrockiWe love our chickens. We love their personality. We love their silly antics that put us in stitches. And we love their eggs, of course. There's nothing like an Easter egg hunt nearly every day – especially since we've discovered our hens pickiness about their nesting areas.

My husband went to a lot of trouble designing and building our passive solar chicken coop. The coop is 8-by-12 and, based on all the literature we've read, can house roughly 24 heavy breed hens. There are two rows of nesting boxes, allowing ample room for the girls to lay their eggs. But, do you think they like to do that? Nope!

We use the area under our deck for storage and the hens use it for dust bathing and as shade. They also created for themselves two nesting areas for eggs. It was convenient to go gather the eggs since we just had to go down the stairs and viola! Then my husband decided to rearrange some things and smooth out the dirt. That wasn't good enough anymore for the girls! They moved their nest. After a day or so, I found a hidden stash next to our compost area. The hunt was over for a few days! Until ... my husband weed whacked the area and their nest was exposed.

I wasn't happy with the constant changing up of nesting areas and annoyed that they had perfectly good nesting space in the coop and refused to use it. I've read about and seen pictures of coop curtains since I started researching chickens a few years ago. They were cute and some even fancier than the curtains in some homes, but I wasn't sure how practical they were. But, I knew that the musical nest game had to end and so I grabbed some red polka dot flannel on sale at the fabric store and went to work. (Or rather, my mother-in-law took the project since she thought the idea was way cool!)

As I mowed the lawn, she and my son plotted and planned and cut and sewed the curtains. We hung them up and I was sure that the hens were going to rebel once again and we'd be forever searching for their eggs. But, you know what? They love them! They create the privacy they crave and now the hens lay the eggs where they are supposed to. It makes egg gathering a breeze and my children love to help. My 2-year-old daughter tells me it's her job to go to the “toop” to gather the eggs.


How about you? Do you have curtains for your hens? I think my next project will be making a sign to hang outside the coop door that says “Wicked chickens lay deviled eggs.” In the meantime, I'll soon be sharing our trials and tribulations with having a free range flock as well as some photographs of the chicken coop. Until then, happy homesteading!

Chicken Keeping Lessons

Heidi NawrockiWhen people would tell me how fun chickens were, I'd think to myself – they're chickens! They can't be THAT fun! But, boy was I wrong. And happily so, I might add. We have now had our chickens for seven months. We got 11 chicks in late April/early May and were gifted 10 hens from a friend moving out of state. The hens adapted quite quickly and hardly took a break from laying. We enjoyed the littles, as we call them, in the house for a few weeks. We have lost two over the summer – one of our chicks from reasons unknown and we had a hen wander off a few weeks ago. I suppose there's hope out there that she might return, but it's not looking good.

I'll be the first to admit that before we got chickens, birds totally freaked me out. Like, I had visions of the movie “The Birds” in my head. It helped me tremendously by getting the littles. One little in particular, my dear little Barred Rock Amelia, became my therapist. She would roost on my shoulder while I walked around the house. And she only tried to peck at my eye once! I think she might have been enamored with my eyelashes, but luckily she missed. She is still a great little pullet. She has started laying, so whenever we find a pullet egg we can safely assume it is from her. And she's still my therapist. A few weeks ago, I had a rough day. I went out and she came running to me. I picked her up and hugged her. It made me feel better. If that makes me weird, then so be it.

Rex RooWhile I initially wanted to have a flock of Buff Orpingtons, I am glad we have a motley crew. We have Black Australorp, Speckled Sussex, Buffs, Light Brahma, Silver and Gold Laced Wyandotte, Red Sex Link, Barred Rock, New Hampshire Red, and an unknown white brown egg layer. Most of them have names, such as Butter the Buff Orpington. We also have Fish and Gucci. And Rex Roo (in the photo).

It really is no joke that they are easier to take care of than cats. We let them free range, and I just need to let them out in the morning and put them in with some feed at night. I occasionally go out and give them scraps or treats, but otherwise we see them all over the place hunting bugs.

Acclimating a pound puppy to the new kids on the block was fun. And by fun, I mean nerve wracking. We rescued our shelter pup when we moved in and she has been a great addition to the family. She loves our children and torments the cats. She has never needed to be shown her boundaries and can be trusted outside without running off. But, it took her some time to get adjusted to the chickens. We had a rhythm in place where she was allowed out in the early morning and after the chickens went to bed. The chickens had the place to themselves during the day. And then she got out. She nabbed a chicken – all were unharmed, other than the dropped feathers. And if no one tells you about dropped feathers, be sure to look it up. It might freak you out a little if you happen upon a big pile of feathers. She has adjusted to them now, so we can trust her outside with them.

Until! Until we noticed a drop in egg production. And we found her eating an egg one day. We've been trying to be proactive now in watching her in and around the coop. She must have picked up on the fact that the chickens cackle when they lay. She's pretty in tune with her flock. While she's not a guardian dog per se, we haven't had any predator problems.

And the children LOVE them! Our son has started to help me feed them. Our daughter loves to run up to them to pet them. And the chickens love them as well. The other day, the children and I were having a reading party in the playhouse part of their swing set. Little Amelia tried with all her might to figure out a way to get up to read with us.

And they are most definitely a gateway drug in terms of livestock. We now have hopes of getting some dairy goats in the near future and hopefully a family cow in a few years. There's just something about going out back for an egg for some homemade ice cream. Be sure to check out our blog to follow along our crazy homesteading antics.

Passive Solar Winter Living

Heidi NawrockiIt is difficult for us to believe, but we are at the start of the third winter of living in our passive solar home. We still get confused looks and stares when we tell people we live in a passive solar home.

“So, you use electric to heat your house, then?”

“That must be neat to live off grid!”

“The sun? It heats your house?”

“That can't really work, there's no way.”

Well, I'm here to tell you it DOES work and it's a lot of fun as well. So, let's dispel some myths.

1) We do NOT live off grid. We still are hooked into the traditional power grid. We were fully prepared to go off grid. We had a local solar company come out to do a site assessment and give us a quote. We have excellent southern exposure and there would be NO reason that we wouldn't have been able to be completely off grid. But alas, we would have been unable to secure financing for our home if we had chosen that route.

2) The sun DOES heat our house! It's crazy and it still amazes us every day. There are 2-foot overhangs on our roof. The sun literally does not come in the windows in the summer, which certainly adds to the comfort level in the summer. But in the winter, sunlight fills our home. There is such a difference in the level of comfort between sunny days and cloudy days in the winter. Just the other day when it was a balmy 15 degrees and sunny outside, the sun kept the inside a nice 68.

3) We do have an electric heat pump, but it's our TERTIARY source of heat. No. 1 and our absolute favorite is the sun. Our secondary heat source is our woodstove. And then comes the heat pump. Our heat pump is only efficient down to a certain temperature, so our woodstove gets the most use on non-sunny days. It also certainly helps that our house is mega insulated.

4) Why, yes, we DO love all of our windows. I always get remarks about how much work it must be keeping the windows clean. Yes, I won't lie, cleaning windows is not my favorite chore. But, when we see views like this, it's worth it.


We are so happy with the performance of our home in the winter. There are ways YOU can take advantage of the sun, even if your house isn't specifically designed for passive solar.

Be sure to open any blinds and windows on the south side of your house during the day. This will allow for the maximum sun to enter your home. Be sure to close your blinds and curtains at sunset to help trap the heat you have gained.

I had a friend last winter who, during a power outage, opened up her curtains on the south side of her house, and was able to raise the temperature of her home by 2 degrees. It's a small thing to do that can have a big impact! Or, you can be crazy like us and go ahead and build yourself a passive solar home. You won't regret it!

Be sure to follow along for more about passive solar living, knitting, home improvement, and chickens on our blog. Happy Winter!