Backyard Baers

Our First Blizzard

Benjamin BaerYou may have heard, there was a giant winter storm this past weekend named Jonas. I never knew they named winter storms; growing up in Florida I knew they named hurricanes (I saw plenty of those), but never heard of naming a winter storm until recently. Winter storms deserve a name too, I guess.

While the lower elevations in our area experienced plenty of snow and wind, the higher elevations got to enjoy blizzard conditions. It was an experience, to say the least, but we were prepared …

We did everything we could think of to make sure we were prepared to lose power or be stuck at home for an extended period of time. Made sure we had plenty of food items, filled the vehicles with gas, had plenty of gas on hand for the generator, filled our tub with water and made sure all of our flashlights/lanterns were working and 100% charged. I also made sure to have plenty of frozen gallon jugs to put in our refrigerators/freezers to keep the contents cold (I always have those on hand … never know when you might need a block of ice!). I’ll admit, living in Florida, when a hurricane was approaching I did absolutely nothing to prepare. I always expected everything to be fine, and for the most part, it always was. I never experienced extended power outages, never got stranded, it was always pretty easy (the same cannot be said for my parents who were once without power for about a week). Obviously, times have changed quite a bit — maybe it’s age, maybe it’s the fact I have a family now or maybe I’m just more fearful of winter storms than hurricanes — whatever the reason, we were ready for this storm.

I made a quick trip to the county dump early Friday morning, and about the time I got back, the snow started falling, and it didn’t stop until Saturday evening. We spent Friday trying to enjoy it, did a little sledding and walking around taking in some of the winter wonderland sights in the falling snow, but our daughter was not having it. One day she will probably be like every other kid, and will be hoping for and celebrating any and all snow days. But until then, the sledding, snow men, snow angels and snowball fights will all have to wait; as she prefers to watch the snow from the window of a heated home with some blackberries in one hand and a doll in the other. And she did plenty of that both days, as the snow was heavy at times, but steady at the minimum, thru Saturday night. The peak of it was Friday night, when if you went outside around 10pm it was a complete white out – totally unlike anything I have ever seen before. We have plenty of fog from time to time, so we’re used to mornings with limited visibility. But we’ve never seen anything like Friday night, where the snow and wind were so strong we couldn’t see the trees outside our bedroom window.

 pkb hates snow

In case you're unaware, I'm pretty sure the arms up and straight is the universal toddler sign for, "Pick me up and get me the heck out of here!"

When it was all said and done, we received 24 inches of snow and had wind gusts up to 35 mph, and thankfully, never lost power. Sunday morning we all ventured outside to start the shoveling, and of course, to compare temperature readings, wind gusts and snow measurements with the neighbors.

Making Something Out of Nothing

Benjamin BaerWell, it’s that time of the year, cold temps, snow, ice, where you get to go sledding or stay inside with a fire ... well, not this year. This year we’ve broken a few records for high temperatures in November and December, and have yet to see any snow or ice. I guess it’s something of a pleasant surprise … I can’t say I enjoyed shoveling 8 inches of snow last year on Thanksgiving … but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I do miss it a little. But, this is the way seasons work; you have pleasant winters, harsh winters, rainy summers, wet summers, etc., etc. Sooner or later, the snow, ice and 20s will arrive; and we’ll enjoy them when they do, but until then we will do our best to take advantage of the pleasant conditions.

The last few weekends have been particularly productive days. We have cleaned a good portion of the backyard, which is about ready for construction of the chicken coop. We’ve also created a nice trail system through the unclear part, for hiking and the wilderness feel. So, even though we have removed a lot of the brush and trees in our backyard, there is still plenty of the thick mountain forest to roam. 

I also constructed a new firepit. I went back and forth for months on where to put it; but ultimately, decided to put it off the side of the house. It’s conveniently located off our back porch, and not too far from a floodlight, should we need some extra light. It is definitely nothing complex. I dug a shallow hole and then walked around our property gathering various rocks to outline it. I gathered a ton of rocks in order to have a variety to pick from, knowing some were going to fit together better than others. In the end, I like to think it was all about having the right rock, sitting the right way, to make the circle come together … but, really, it’s just a hole with some rocks around it. After I got it all put together and built a little fire, I realized the location I picked kind of sloped downward on one side of the firepit. And if you put a chair there and sat down, it literally felt like you were going to fall backwards, and roll down the mountain. So, I started thinking, and decided having a bench there, that was secured into the ground, wouldn’t have that feeling. I already knew I had the bench seat; I could use an old fence post that was wide and flat enough. It was originally part of our front fence, but the end rotted out, so I took it down and sawed off the rotted part. Fortunately though, it was still plenty long enough to serve as a bench for two people. The posts weren’t quite that simple. I’ve cut down quite a few trees, and was originally cutting them up to be used as firewood. But, some of them were so long and so straight, I was thinking I might be able to use those as fence posts at some point. So, I just left those as is, and stacked them all together (also saved me a lot of work). So, I just grabbed one of those trees, cut two pieces of identical lengths, buried half of each into the ground with the other half sticking up, and screwed the old fence post into the top of each. There was a little bit of sanding involved, and the post-hole digging was probably the hardest part, but all in all a pretty easy project. We ended up being very happy with the bench, and I think it kind of makes the firepit area. I think we're going to add two more, maybe a little longer, to the other sides of the firepit. Perhaps pointing them in an angle. 

Firepit Alonebench

In no way, shape or form does it compare to the firepit I built at our home in Texas. That one was huge, very cool looking and just spectacular … it was also expensive. The patio rock and the stone to build the pit were all purchased from landscape stores. This time I took a different approach … we kept it simple, and we didn’t spend a dime on any of the supplies required. Everything we either got for free from someone who thought it was trash or found walking around on our property. Now that makes me happy! We’re a long ways from being the homesteaders I want us to be, no question, but to me being able to make something out of nothing is what homesteading is all about. And that’s what we did here. We wanted an outdoor fireplace, and needed a bench go around it. Instead of running to a store, we checked our shed for items that could be reused and then walked around our property to see what the land could provide. With those items and a little work, we were able to construct exactly what we wanted. 

Well, I hope everything enjoys a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. See you next year with (hopefully) many more completed projects to tell. 

My Favorite Time of the Year

Benjamin BaerWell, we had our first freeze Saturday night, so I guess that means autumn is in full swing, which is my favorite of the seasons. I love fall, especially in Virginia, the changing of the leaves, Thanksgiving, football every weekend, cooler temps, less time spent mowing grass and more time spent blowing/raking leaves. It also means our growing season has come to an end. We haven’t quite reached our peak fall colors, but it looks like this fall’s colors are going to be a little muted. Leaves are already quickly falling – I spent 4 hours Sunday blowing leaves – and probably already need to do it again. Things didn’t exactly shape up for excellent fall colors this year. We mostly had a dry summer and then a ton of rain at the very end, plus a lot of wind. These factors, combined with a somewhat late first freeze, have led to mostly dark orange and brown fall colors (so far, at least). In order to get the eye-catching vibrant fall colors you see in postcards and books, we really need rain throughout summer and then an initial freeze in early October, and the less hard wind the better. Some of the brutal winds we’ve had lately have blown leaves off the trees before they really even had a chance to turn. But, that is all in the cycle of the seasons, there will be good autumns, bad autumns, bad winters, good summers, bad springs, and etc., etc.

This past spring/summer was our first attempt at gardening, albeit on a small scale, but I’d say it was a success. The cucumbers we harvested were okay, but we did not find them all that enjoyable (we also aren’t that big on cucumbers). Our tomatoes, however, were excellent and plentiful. We harvested a ton of tomatoes, more than we could eat, and ended up giving several to friends and family, which we were happy to do. We also made some excellent marinara sauce and attempted salsa. The marinara was perfection, and it yielded so much it lasted several days and several different meals. The salsa, on the other hand, was not a success. And while we still managed to force it all down (well, obviously, I wasn’t gonna let it go to waste!), it was over an extended period of time. And though no one said it, I think we were all pretty happy when the bowl was finally empty. We’ll have to test different salsa ideas next year to try to match our marinara.  

We bought a dehydrator last year, so we’ve also started drying our own herbs, which was great because we really had an excellent herb garden this year. We also attempted jerky a few times. And while I again, forced it all down, it wasn’t exactly the quality we wanted. So, we’ll have to keep working on that.

We have several projects presently going on:

The sections of land I cleared out this summer are ready to go; one needs a fire pit and garden, and the other needs a chicken coop. The fire pit and chicken coop are presently in the works, with priority being given to the fire pit as we’d like to enjoy it this Thanksgiving. The chicken coop and garden area don’t need to be ready until spring. I’m not exactly thrilled about working on them during winter, I was hoping to finish it in the fall, but oh well, what are you gonna do.

We are also working on adding a heating source to our basement. Our basement is finished, but our upstairs fireplace doesn’t heat it at all (obviously) and our furnace doesn’t heat it very well. Sometimes it will be 70 degrees upstairs, and you go downstairs and it’s 50. More than anything we want a wood burning stove, we’ve always wanted one, and it would be perfect downstairs. We’ve done all the research for gas vs. wood and all, and the downstairs already has a line and is ready for a gas fireplace. But, what can I say, we really like the idea of a wood stove. We appreciate the conveniences that come with a gas fireplace, but it’s just not our style. And I’m not going to pretend that I haven’t already thought about the money we could save on gas with a wood stove. I have. A lot. And not to mention, I have so much firewood cut and stacked, I am dying to do something with it. I don’t know why I continue to chop and stack it, knowing we don’t have a use for it right now, but what else am I supposed to do with it? I’ve cut down so many trees, and cut them all up, I probably have enough firewood cut and stacked to heat our home for the next 2 winters. We continue to deliberate and look at options, but we are getting close to pulling the trigger on something.

PKB is celebrating her second birthday this week. Hard to believe she is almost 2 years old, two years have absolutely flown by. Enter: the Terrible Twos … sometimes I feel like we've already entered that stage. Here she is behaving and feeding some goats at a farm we visited. 

PKB feeding some goats

One Project At A Time, Please

Benjamin BaerWhile spring is coming to an end, our list of projects does not. We have made a lot of progress though.

Most impressive so far is probably our herb garden, it is thriving. We have loads of lavender, parsley, oregano, mint and cilantro. The other evening I clipped a bunch of cilantro, and made cilantro lime chicken for dinner. It was excellent.

In addition to our herb garden, we have seven tomato and three cucumber plants that are all doing very well. We should be eating homegrown tomatoes and cucumbers in no time. Knock on wood, so far we have been pretty fortunate with pests and weather.

I did come out one morning to find a deer had cleaned up one of the cucumber plants, but they have not been back. I think our dogs do a pretty good job of keeping wild animals from coming too close to the house.

This year has been drier than average for our area, but not too bad, and definitely nothing like the drought conditions experienced in other areas across the country.

PKB has been doing an excellent job of, at least, pretending to be interested in the garden. She definitely seems intrigued by the plants, and always makes certain to check them out when she is outside strolling around. She just needs to learn the plants are fragile, and we must be careful with them, as the other day I caught her standing next to some of the tomato plants violently shaking one of the cages … hopefully, we don’t end up with shaken tomato syndrome.

PKB inspecting some of the tomatoes.

PKB inspecting some of the tomatoes.

We have quite a few berry bushes that are also thriving. We should end up with more blackberries than we know what to do with, even after the birds and animals get their share. Blueberries, on the other hand, are a different story. Last year, we had hardly any blueberries. By the time we got to them they had pretty much been cleaned out. I’m hopeful that won’t be the case this year. Someone once told me, if you aren’t going to use any of the pesticides or defense mechanisms (which we don’t) then you need to make sure you plant enough for everyone to get their share – us, the birds, the deer, the rabbits and the insects. So, hopefully, that is what I’ve done, and we will see what happens.

The clearing process continues to be a work-in-progress. And it is a lot of work, and a lot of time. But, progress has definitely been made in two different sections. Originally, I was focused on one area for a chicken coop, the garden and a firepit/sitting area. I was under the impression that we could have all those items in one cleared-out section of our property. So, we cleared out a large portion, and even built some stairs with natural rock gathered from around our land, and it looks good. But, surveying that area, I couldn’t decide exactly how to utilize it for everything I wanted, it is pretty steep (which wouldn’t be great for the firepit) and doesn’t get a lot of sunlight (which won’t work for the garden).

So, I decided, as it was visible from our back deck and not too far from our shed, the area would work fine for our chicken coop, but that was about it. Which meant I needed to focus on clearing out two sections, rather than just the one I had been working on.

To make a long story short(er), I now have the original area with the natural rock stairs that will house the chicken coop, and another area on the other end of the house that is going to be perfect for the garden and the sitting area. This section of our property gets plenty of sunlight, and isn't quite as steep as the first area I started clearing. Of course, the main drawback of this approach is it has doubled the amount of work to be done.

The garden and firepit/sitting area will be in this section.

The garden and firepit/sitting area will be in this section. This area was completely grown up with trees, weeds and bushes, but we have made considerable progress clearing it out – only leaving the blackberry bushes and a few young pines.

As you can see, we have a lot going on, but this represents only a small amount of everything that needs to be done. There is still plenty to be done to get everything the way we want it.

Springing Into Action

Benjamin BaerIn just our second year living in a state that sees some form of a winter, we are quickly realizing how excited one gets for spring. Living in Texas and Florida, we really never had an appreciation for the arrival of spring. I mean, in both states, you pretty much have summer and summer-light. So, seeing temps in the 50s and 60s has had us jumping for joy.

Now, before all you good folks in Minnesota and Wisconsin jump to remind me Virginia’s winter is spring compared to what you guys have to deal with, I know, I get it; but, as far as I’m concerned, any place that sees snow, ice and temps consistently below freezing has a winter.

However, as we get ready for spring, I remind myself, and family, that our winter really wasn’t bad compared to past years. We got 44 inches of snow and ice at our home, which is at 2,300 feet elevation, compared to 37 inches at our rental last winter, which was at 700 feet. One of my neighbors said last winter they got 67 inches, which is closer to the norm than the 44 we got this year.

So, while we are excited for spring to get here and put the snow and cold temperatures behind us, I’m trying to keep in mind that Old Man Winter really took it easy on us for our first year in our home. We made the best of it though, and it was a season of several first-times for our little family. Last year, our daughter was so young; we really didn’t get a chance to do anything in the snow, except watch it from the warmth of our rental. This year we went on walks in the woods, got to go sledding, and our daughter got to play in the snow for the first time ever.

We are definitely preparing for spring though. Last weekend we planted some seeds to officially start the garden. We started by making a bunch of little pots out of newspapers. The idea is for us to do this ourselves, not go out and buy a bunch of pots or some kit that does everything for you. Much to my wife's dismay, we have no shortage of newspapers. I have refused to throw them out because I knew I would eventually have a use for them, and it drove her crazy to see a pile of newspapers sitting there.

Well, it recently occurred to me a pot made out of those would be perfect, not only to sprout the seed in, but when we transplant, we can just throw the newspaper in the compost. Win – win. Good thing I held onto all these newspapers!

Our little newspaper planters

Our little newspaper planters.

Once we got all of our pots together, we planted tomatoes and peppers. Previously, we’ve only grown herbs, so vegetables, and seed-starting, is a brand new game for us.  

We’re starting small, and we’re starting easy. We keep our house pretty cool, around 67 degrees, so right now we are keeping the seedlings above the fireplace to try to keep them warm. Once they sprout, we will move them to the basement where we will keep them directly under two 48-inch fluorescent light bulbs. Then once it has warmed up enough, we will move them all outside to transplant.

At that time we’ll plant the rest of our garden, and depending on how seed-starting this year goes, will dictate how much more we start next year. It’s all part of the process, one day at a time.

PKB planting some seeds

PKB and I planting our seeds.

Wildlife Encounters Up On The Mountain

Benjamin BaerI know I’ve pointed it out many times, but we live in the sticks, up on a mountain; so, when it comes to wildlife, we have plenty, and quite the variety. Which is great; we love seeing wildlife in our backyard. It’s exciting, and I can’t wait to point it out to my daughter when she gets older. We have seen turkeys, snakes, more whitetail deer than we can count, a few bears and quite a few foxes … some of the foxes have been quite large, large enough that it’s made me nervous about putting our smallest dog, Brownford, outside. I don’t worry too much, because he’s always alongside our 70-pound Labrador, and I figure he’s probably enough to deter a fox from approaching. Still, if they’re hungry enough, they’ll try just about anything, so it's definitely something to keep an eye on. 


Brownford, still for the moment.

This past week has been especially exciting. In addition to the typical repertoire of wildlife sightings, we have seen a bobcat and another black bear. The bobcat was particularly interesting.

Now, plenty of you, I’m sure, are wondering, ‘what’s the big deal? It’s a bobcat!’ Well, I was stoked! First off, I had never seen one before, and like I said, we love seeing wildlife, so seeing something for the first time is always exciting. But, there’s also kinda a debate in our area over whether they actually reside around here.

We all agree there are plenty in the higher elevations and the Shenandoah National Park (which, by the way, is amazing, and if you haven’t, and get the chance, you should absolutely check it out), but some are skeptical whether they hang around our area. A matter of fact, I once witnessed two guys get into a fairly heated argument over whether one of them had actually seen a bobcat (I just stood idly by trying to figure out which one was crazier). But, I can put the debate to bed, there’s at least one hanging around these parts. 

While seeing the wildlife is exciting and fun, and I’m thankful it’s something we get to experience, it wasn’t until my encounter with the bobcat that something occurred to me that hadn’t before. How the heck am I going to keep my chickens safe from all these predators? In Texas, I had exactly one predator: neighborhood cats. And there were so few of them, I didn’t sweat it, and never had an issue.

The Texas Suburban Chicken Coop.  

The Texas Suburban Chicken Coop

As you can see, our previous coop/run was nothing special, but was fine for our safe suburban environment. It served its purpose of giving the ladies a place to hang out. It was free of any gaps or holes, so nothing could get in, and nothing could get out. But thinking about that coop now; a bear would have had no trouble breaking into it, and a bobcat or fox definitely could have gotten into the run, and possibly the coop as well.

So, in addition to all the things I plan to do differently for my second chicken coop, I’ve now realized my top priority needs to be safety. 

I’ve started reading articles and checking the message boards for ideas, I know a rooster is supposed to offer protection, but 1. A rooster isn’t defending anything against a bear or bobcat, and 2. The other homes in the area would kill me if I got a rooster.

I’ve seen a few goofy ideas (like hanging Christmas lights around your coop supposedly deters predators ... uhhhh, rriigghhttt), but it seems the best option is an electric fence. Which, I’m struggling with. What if my daughter, or anyone, walked into it?

I understand that it wouldn’t severely hurt anyone, but if it’s enough to scare a bear away, I have to believe it would be pretty painful for any human as well. I just don’t feel right about it.

I’ll just build the coop and run as strong and sturdy as I possibly can, and make improvements as necessary. Consider it yet another one of my many learning processes. 

How Time Flies

Benjamin BaerWell, it’s hard to believe it is already the end of 2014, what a hectic year. Time has certainly flown by; I can hardly believe we’ve been living in Virginia an entire year now!

Some things have gone as planned this year – we managed to hit the one-year mark as parents. It was a major milestone for our baby, but, I’d say, it was an equally major milestone for us as parents. I mean, keeping a baby in good health for an entire year is no easy feat … although millions of people around the world manage to do it all the time, so maybe it is. … Regardless, we were proud to reach that mark, and celebrated with cake, hamburgers and beer!


PKB did not enjoy her cake as much as I expected.

Meanwhile, projects around the house have not gone as planned. A matter of fact, they’ve nearly been completely neglected until recently. It’s difficult when it’s dark by the time you get home from work, and often times weekends revolve around taking care of a baby or are spent getting the day-to-day operations done, like cutting grass and raking leaves.

I have gathered the items (through trade, purchase and dumpster diving) to put together a compost tumbler (as described here) and plan to get that up and running in the near future. We’ve also recently started clearing out some of the land to make room for our chicken coop and garden. We cut down several large trees, which a lot of work goes into cutting down a tall tree, especially when your home is within the falling distance. But, no sweat, we cut a wedge in one side, and then cut on the side of the direction we wanted the tree to fall, and managed to get that done without any scares or close calls. Now, it’s just a matter of cutting up those trees into firewood, and clearing out all the smaller brush.


The clearing process is in the works.

I hope to get a lot of the clearing done over the New Year’s holiday and weekend, assuming the weather holds up. We’ve had a lot of rain/snow/ice so far this fall and young winter. We received 7 inches of snow the day before Thanksgiving, and have had three or four days of heavy ice; but that’s life up on the mountain for ya.

It was quite an adjustment going from Texas to our rental in Central Virginia, which I expected, but I didn’t have an appreciation for the adjustment going from our rental to our home on the mountain. Our elevation is about 2,300 feet now, compared to about 700 at our rental. And while we’ve already had a few days of heavy ice, I can only recall one day of bad ice all of last winter. But, I’ve said this a hundred times already, and I’ll say it again, we are learning as we go, and I can already see signs of improvement. I’ll admit, I was freaking out a little that first morning I stepped out and everything was coated in ice; the following ice mornings, I just grabbed some salt and went to work like it was no big deal, and we managed just fine.

I can say I am excited to see what 2015 brings. I don't really believe in new year's resolutions, but I will say one of my goals is to make good progress on all of my projects planned for the house and land ... and to blog more often!

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