Transitional Traditions

Moving the Cottage Garden

Transitional TraditionsSometimes farming teaches you that no matter how well you plan, you are still at the whim of nature's desires.

Back in February, I decided to move our cottage garden a few hundred yards closer to the house. Where it sat, everything from electricity for the fences and water for the plants had to be accessed via extension. I have in my possession 350' of garden hoses. I had 600' of electric horse fence for the perimeter of that large garden and another 150' of wire run along the ground to hook up said fence to our electric fencer, plugged in nicely on the side of the house. Then the aspect of walking there, back and forth, each time you forgot something or filled the wagon with produce, was starting to get old. Finally, our retired friends who garden with us were less and less excited for that same walk each time they came out. In my mind, all signs pointed to move.

The end of March and the first two weeks of April were so wet, it made no sense to take things down. Our soil is mostly black clay and if you step in it while it's wet, your boots will soon be twice as heavy and behave like snowshoes. Plus, it ruins the tilth of the soil with all that tramping around. No, I'd have to keep waiting.

On April 13th, a freak snow storm hit Wisconsin. While April snows aren't unusual here, the magnitude and length of this storm certainly was. It continued for the next 48 hours, dropping 30+ inches of snow in some areas. Records were broken all over the state and the snowfall was so heavy that literally everything shut down. When Winter Storm Evelyn finally ended, no one was going anywhere on Monday morning. It took another week for the snow to melt and another week after that for the ground to fully dry out.

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In my little world, that meant there would be NO moving any garden beds, and especially no moving the damp, heavy soil those beds contained. Spring, which had seemed within arms reach a few days before, was now delayed by three weeks.

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In early May, I took down the entire electric fencing system, the aging snow fence, 50 or so T-posts and as many little garden items that I could haul back without help. Next was the hard part; lifting up and moving our 15 raised beds to the new location, transporting the soil and refilling said beds, then erecting a new fence. I had hoped to get all this done in the month of May, thereby barely slowing down my planting season.

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The garden, as it looked after the snow melt and rain dried up, early May.

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Beginning the long process of moving, by taking down the fence.

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The garden without the fence and the beds, with two raised beds already hauled off.

Then the rains came. Yes, after the snow was gone and the ground began to green a little, we got inch after inch of rain. In fact, there was only about one week in which the ground had enough time to dry before the next storm that I was able to get some garden beds moved and enough soil hauled to fill one of them.

Meanwhile, my started plants, which I'd already transplanted to larger containers once, were hardened off and sitting impatiently on the deck. I began giving summer squash and zucchini, cabbage and green peppers away. Anyone who visited went home with a plant or four. The poor things were becoming root-bound and I had no place to put them.

This spring was a lesson in patience and acceptance for me. Patience with the weather, of course, but also recognizing my own expectations and their limitations. Acceptance and peace with the fact that my grand plans for a garden move were never going to be realized this year. Once I accepted that, it was easy to move forward. In fact, it was almost a relief. Now, instead of a remake of the garden as it sat, I could create landscaping here, near the house, in places that had needed landscaping for years, but were neglected due to the high needs of that cottage garden.

With renewed vigor and hope, and a lot of Andy's help, we moved six raised beds immediately to the house. Starting from the south end of the deck, we fit five raised beds up against the house.

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Thank the Lord for tractors and hydraulics!

We had already placed one on the back of the house, against the south wall where nothing but weeds were growing. Here I planted my ailing peppers, cabbages and remaining summer squash. Given that I had perennials still growing happily in the old garden, started vegetables and flowers sitting on my deck, AND a bunch of freshly purchased seeds packets sitting in the house, I was forced to be creative in my planting.

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I dug up most of the perennial border flowers and found homes for them both in the garden beds, but also in areas around our side yard that needed a little pick-me-up.

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A wagon of Instant Garden!

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By now, we had hit the first week of June. Only once since I've been gardening (11 years) have we ever planted this late. It automatically ruled out radishes and peas. I was, however, able to plant several varieties of lettuces and kale because the little garden beds all get afternoon shade. This will keep the hottest part of the sun off them and keep them from bolting so quickly in deep summer.

Now, with my 1/3 sized garden set up and planted, I have far fewer responsibilities than I did before. Last summer, the garden became all-consuming and by August, I was sick of it. Although it was beautiful, and we even hosted two garden parties amidst the bucolic atmosphere, I felt the stress outweighed the sights. With this garden move, I had already planned on reducing the overall size of the garden to cut down on mowing and labor. This solution is even better. We get fresh produce and flowers right next to our house and I am not feeling nearly as tied down to the chore of gardening.

While it wasn't what I envisioned a few months ago, I'm truly looking forward to our little kitchen cottage garden and what it can produce for us this year. What plans have you had to alter where it turned out better in the end?


Photos property of Becky Sell.

Let's Get Crackin'!

Transitional TraditionsLast fall, we had a bounty year for hickory nuts. While we don't actually own a single hickory tree, our fenceline is home to an enormous hickory tree on the east and an entire Shagbark Hickory forest on the west.

Needless to say, windfalls on our fields alone allowed us to gather five gallons of hickory nuts without even trying. At the time, I intended to dry them properly and crack them in the dead of JanuFeb.

But then I sort of forgot about them in the garage. Heh.

cracking nuts

Whilst digging around for some books a couple weeks ago, I rediscovered our yellow bucket of nuts and last week decided that we should make something with that resource. Enter our children. Ranging in age from 5 to 10 years old, I knew this was a great job for them to not only learn, but quickly master and own as theirs.

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We have a yellow cast iron hickory nut cracker my father picked up for us from his late uncle's estate sale. We've used it several times for all sorts of nuts, but it definitely excels at extracting the sometimes stubborn nut meat of those hickory nuts.

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After watching the nuts get cracked in uneven and unsatisfying ways, I sat down with the kids to experiment with the best way to hold a nut in the clamps. You see, even small things like how to properly crack a hickory nut have been lost with those earlier generations. Yet, I figured there had to be a better way to extract the meat. I figured out that if you hold the nut with the widest sides wedged into the clamps, with the little pointed ends facing out and also towards the mechanism, you can get a solid crack.

picking meat

From my limited tinkering, I found that 90 percent of the nuts allowed us to extract one whole meat half, with the other side much easier to get at and usually only breaking in 2-3 places. This was MUCH better than the tiny frustrating pieces I saw my kids picking out. Soon the three older kids learned that if each took a specific job, they could come up with a nut-cracking assembly line. It was really quite effective!

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The first child used the hickory nut cracker to make the first crack. Then he/she would put that nut into a bowl. The second child would take from that bowl and try to get the easiest meat out, putting the prize into the final jar and placing the rest of the shell into a second bowl. The third child then had the responsibility of using the nut picker to try and get the last of the meats not readily available to the middle worker.

They set about working on this project for over an hour, chatting casually and generally enjoying each other. Every once in a while, the job roles would swap, to make it fair for the ones doing the hardest work.

cracking nuts

They came up with this on their own and in no time, we had a full cup of nuts, ready for Andy's recipe for maple syrup and hickory nut scones to share with friends the next morning.

One thing we learned was that they needed to be more diligent about keeping tiny pieces of shells out of the final jar. More than one of us crunched down on a hard shell the next morning as we otherwise enjoyed the scones!

The next several days found the kids wandering over to the bucket of nuts and passively cracking a few, both for snacking and for storing in our jars. I love that they now have a timeless skill which they can fall back on whenever they (or some recipes) need it!

Winter Musings

Transitional TraditionsIt's been an interesting nine months since we last wrote. I was talking to you about starting our garden last May, and then the rest of the year got away from us. We had a huge change in Andrew's employment and several trips away from home. We had our first legitimate CSA from the garden produce and learned so much from having to produce food not only for ourselves, but also for six other families! We hosted two garden parties, one in the summer and one in the fall. We raised chickens on pasture in a homemade tractor and revamped the old coop just before fall so they could settle in and start laying. We added garden beds, cleaned up more of our landscape and in the process of living out 2017, realized a lot about ourselves.

While we love the idea of homesteading and staying close to the land, we aren't excited about the prospect of full-scale farming. I think for years that was our goal, but over time have realized that we can't do it with only one adult at the helm. That adult would be me, since I am the one home with the kids every day. Andy is working hard getting a startup business going and cannot, for the foreseeable future, help much around the homestead.

In light of that, we are skipping making maple syrup for the first time in four years. It's bittersweet because we love making that sugary resource from the neighborhood trees, yet I know that I cannot maintain an outdoor fire all day (we don't have enough wood fuel anyway). And I don't want to boil 70 gallons of sap in our home again like last year.

As well, I am not going to offer our CSA again because I found the workload to be very demanding. I enjoy our garden. I truly love that space, but by the end of August it was becoming an unwanted chore. I don't want to feel that way again for something I love.

With Andy gone in Madison many days of the week starting in April, I will be holding down the fort by myself. We have decided to give more responsibilities to the kids to help ease my burden. Actually, the older two, Elly and Ethan, have been taking care of the chickens all winter with little help from either parent. They take turns watering, feeding and picking eggs every day. On nice winter days we can let them out and the kids remember to shut them in at night. It's been a serious relief for me and a great way to boost their confidence.

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Photo by Getty Images/5xinc

In a couple of weeks, we will start our seeds for the garden. The kids have each chosen plants that they will grow and take care of in their own garden beds. The excitement they feel in owning their own garden can be felt whenever we look at seeds catalogs or talk about the garden.

Right now the garden is under a sheet of ice, but the way this winter has been going, it might be an early spring. I will have to redo the fence, putting in solid wood corner posts and rehanging the snow fence. It's starting to sag in a lot of areas and, since it's been up for three years, the wood is starting to need replacing in spots. I have an idea to use our chain link fence, which we used years ago to make a small yard around our home (to keep the toddler in). That would provide a much more secure environment for my plants, birds, toads and snakes.

Another endeavor I want to undertake is introducing ducks onto the homestead. I have always wanted ducks wandering about our yard, free-ranging on bugs and plants. They could stay with the hens overnight and be let out each morning to roam and quack.

Until then we wait a little bit longer for Old Man Winter to expire once again.

Putting in a Spring Garden

Transitional TraditionsIt was the end of February. We were boiling maple sap and setting up our first-ever mini greenhouse. The seeds had arrived from our catalogs, and the starter soil sat beckoning me from the edge of the kitchen table. Surely we could plant some seeds now?

 

Seedlings under grow lights

In our part of Wisconsin, the typical last frost date is around Mother's Day.

I don't know what I was thinking.

Fast forward to the end of April, and the greenhouse in our living room was bursting with enormous tomatoes, lively cabbages, and stretchy cauliflower. I began watching night-time lows like an addict. The weather was evening out, but not near what we needed. I decided to put the cabbages out to start hardening them off.

Seedlings hardening off outside

First, we had to prepare the garden for new plants. This always involves weeding the raised beds and top-filling with compost. This year, we had enough compost for five beds. Next, we began planting cold-hardy seeds. We put radishes, lettuce, peas, and carrots into the ground. Later we planted the little Chinese cabbages in a bed all their own. They looked so relieved to be out of the little cups!

Kids weeding garden beds

Chinese cabbage sprouts

We still needed to top fill and weed three more beds. Down the road from us is a nursery that sells composted topsoil for 30 dollars per yard. While not cheap, the soil is black and loamy. And, having few alternatives (my dad's farm across the road only had hot manure available), we filled the back of the pickup three times.

Having all the beds filled and ready to plant was a good feeling.

Unfortunately, I was unable to get a suitable row cover for the Chinese cabbages in time, and the flea beetles found them. Flea beetles love spicy greens in the springtime, most notably radish greens and Chinese cabbage. Once they find the plants, a row cover is useless. I concocted a homemade insecticidal soap from a recipe I found online and sprayed all the plants. It kept the bugs off very well! Unfortunately the combination burned the tender leaves, and we thought we'd lose the whole crop. I felt like a parent that accidentally hurt their child — just terrible! In the next week I watched the little plants slowly recover, only to have the flea beetles move right back in and riddle the remaining leaves with holes. ARGH!

In desperation, I went to a local garden center and bought some OMRI approved insecticides. I really hate resorting to this because often they kill the beneficial insects as well. However, I am not sure the plants will mature without some help, so I am going to apply the new spray tonight. Hopefully this does the trick.

In the last couple days, we filled the rest of the raised beds with seeds, transplants and several good waterings.

Organized garden beds

Yet, our tomatoes still hang out in their little root-bound cups, waiting for their turn in the garden. Last night we had a frost again. In the forecast, it looks like the last one for the year. I'm trusting that forecast, because they are starting to suffer.

Tomorrow, our gardening partners and a retired couple who also garden in our plot will come to build four or five brand new garden beds. It will be a long, lovely day of construction, topsoil hauling, and planting.

This year we have three families growing with us in our 5000-square-foot garden. In the previous years I was mowing most of that land because we hadn't had the funds to build it larger (most everything needs to be in raised beds due to poor soil fertility and heavy clay that does not drain well). This year, however, the garden will pay for itself for the very first time. We have five people who asked to form a CSA from our little garden!

A CSA! I'm so excited! After gardening for my family for ten years, I feel like I might have the ability to plant for others as well. I will have the much needed help and support from our friends who lived with us/gardened with us last summer, which automatically gives a boost of confidence.

Suddenly, crop failure or poor yields become a big deal. There will be a great deal of additional research on my part, but it will only help me to become a better gardener. I'm excited for the challenge!

As I look onto the garden this morning, the carrots, radishes and peas are well up and growing strong. The transplanted cauliflowers have put out new leaves, and my perennial flowers are beginning to form flower buds. It's really spring in Wisconsin, and I'm so pumped for the new gardening year!

Syrupin' and Seed Startin'

Transitional TraditionsIt was February 17th, almost the exact middle of winter, and we got an urgent text message: "Saps running! You tapping this year?"

What?! It was a full month earlier than last year. How could the sap be running? I looked out my kitchen window. Yes, the snow was melting with the unusual warm snap we were having ... but I didn't think that would wake the trees up by itself. Didn't the sun have to be at a certain angle? Wasn't there something to the length of the days?

No matter. In two days we'd hastily drilled holes in our neighborhood maples and pounded in the taps. In fact, our coats and faces got splashed with the heavily flowing sap. It was, indeed, running!

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Andy and I, with the help of our friend Erik, went from property to property adding taps and blue sap bags to the tree trunks. In a couple hours, we had them covered. Here’s the interesting part: some of the maples we had drilled into last year were bone dry; not running at all yet. Others had clearly been pulling water for several days already. It was an odd experience; one we had not encountered yet in our fourth year of syruping.

That weekend we had scheduled to be out of town, so we relied upon our friends to collect sap. The day we hammered taps, it was 50 degrees F outside. When we came home from our trip, it was closer to 65! We broke records all over the place. Unfortunately, the sap was no longer running.

We had collected merely 20 gallons, and most of that had been from the first 24 hours.

Undeterred, we kept our bags up and waited. Winter can be tricky in Wisconsin; she only has a few stunts to pull. We knew the snow and cold would be back before the calendar proclaimed spring was officially here.

Indeed. Less than a week after seeing record highs, the state was covered in a snowstorm that dropped 6 inches of snow in some parts. And we collected 26 more gallons of sap. The trees love a good mix of freezing and thawing to get their blood pumping.

Because of a number of circumstances, we are having to boil it all down in our kitchen again this year.

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As the sap turned from clear to amber to bronze, the seeds for our garden arrived in the mail. It was time to start our seedlings for May.

Planting Cabbage

We have had very little success starting seeds at home. This year, I asked if we could invest in a seed-starting rack complete with grow lights in order to give our little tomatoes and peppers a fighting chance. With the help of a skilled friend, we found a simple, DIY, seed-starting rack plan online, and he built it in a single day. With all the hardware, lights, and wood, the final cost was about 100 dollars. We can hold up to twelve seed-starting trays (the standard kinds you find in garden catalogs), and the lights are designed to be raised or lowered depending on the plant height.

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I’m sure there will be tweaks on our part to ensure the seedlings’ success, but for now, as the sap boils away, the little cabbages and lettuces have already sprouted. We are hopeful for an early spring, especially since the seed rack has taken over our living room!

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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.

Fireplace

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.

Bedroom

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.

Bedroom

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.

Bedroom

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

Window

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.