As 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.