Sunday, February 1, 2015

Backyard Chickens

One of our favorite homesteading accomplishments is raising our chickens. We have about 30 laying hens, a few roosters, and this past year we raised 50 meat birds.We consider them a "farming staple," if you will, but that is not a universal sentiment!

 There has been a lot of controversy surrounding chickens in the past few years, concentrating in city's where folks want to raise chickens within the city limits. Some consider them as a nuisance, a pest perhaps, creating excess noise and waste within their close quartered neighborhoods. While I understand how this is a problem for some, I wouldn't have it any other way here on our little plot of land.

Chickens happen to be one of the most sustainable resources a homesteader can invest in! Let us start in the kitchen for instance. Consider the organic waste we produce on a daily basis. I don't mean FDA approved, stamped organic, but organic as in can be put back into the earth. All of our produce scraps, and our egg shells go out to the chickens. Seems a little cannibalistic with the egg shells, I know, but they are a great source of calcium and minerals for the chickens, and will in turn make their eggshells stronger. So, there is that. We take them our kitchen trash, which they recycle and
in turn, give us nutritious, protein filled butt fruit hehe! Or in the case of a meat bird, a substantial meal.

In addition to feeding them the kitchen scraps, we also set them loose in the garden each spring. This is an excellent adventure for the chickens, fresh sprouts to eat up, and worms to DIG up! They think it is an all you can eat buffet, meanwhile, they are digging up the garden, getting rid of baby weeds and tilling up the soil. Throw your compost pile and the old bedding from the coop on top and they incorporate all of those nutrients into your soil by scratching and pecking and digging.

Back to sustainability, they eat the grass and bugs in your yard, which is doing you a big favor. They are getting rid of pesky insects such as Mosquito's, and that all has to go out the other end. A messy situation indeed, but what is fertilizer made of? So they eat the grass, but are fertilizing it at the same time. A great situation if you can free range! We however live in an area with many predators, and cannot free range, so we have chicken tractors instead. Not the kind they  can drive around in, but a portable fence that we can move to fresh grass once they have eaten and re-fertilized the ground.

So while our roosters like to sing the song of their people first thing in the morning (their internal clocks must be set wrong because last I checked, morning did not start at 4 a.m.) and cleaning the coop is not the most fun chore in the world, raising chickens is one of my favorite parts of homesteading. They are entertaining to watch, full of character (and sometimes attitude), and provide us with 2 of our biggest food staples. It is an extremely comforting feeling to have a freezer full of meat at the beginning of winter, and an even better feeling to know I can go out to the back yard each day and get one of the most versatile foods ever used in my kitchen! I can see why many people are hoping to raise them within city limits, I don't know that we could ever be without them!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Garden Progress!

Well friends, this is our third year with a vegetable garden, and let me tell you, there is no better feeling than sowing seeds, nurturing and watching them grow, and harvesting the product of all your hard work! No food tastes as good as that which you grow yourself!

Now we are by no means experts, but every year we learn a little more and the garden gets bigger and better than the last year! The biggest thing I have learned over the past three years is the importance of weeding. I know that seems obvious but until put into practice I hadn't realized how big of a difference it makes. :) This year I am weeding more than ever and we added straw to the aisles and around some of the plants to help cut back on the weeds. It isn't a complete barricade against the weeds, but every little bit helps!

Also this year we created a tripod support system for our climbing plants. We tied three posts together and wound cord around them to give the peas and other climbers some support and room to grow!

We also used the waste from our chicken coop as a fertilizer around the plants. While adding nutrients it also helps hold moisture into the soil underneath it.

We have many different varieties of plants, some we have grown before, and some we have never tried.  We run on the philosophy that if we don't know what we are doing, now is the perfect time to learn!

This year we are growing 2 different types of tomatoes, cabbage, brussel sprouts, 4 varieties of lettuce, onions, snap peas, shelling peas, wax beans, purple beans, green beans, broccoli,  cauliflower,  parsnips, carrots, corn, peppers, cucumbers, cantaloupe,  watermelons and pumpkins!

It is certainly a lot of work but it is absolutely worth it in the end. We love producing our own food and not having to rely on someone else for it, such as a grocery store. In addition to feeding us for the summer I also preserve as much as I can for the winter. It is nice having a full pantry as the harsh weather sets in!

We love our garden and I have even come to love going out to weed it hehe! :) Tell us about your favorite thing to grow and harvest from your garden!

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Dryer Ball Tutorial!

Hey there friends! Well it has been about a year since we have last posted! We will have to get better about that. Spring is on its way  here on our little homestead, meaning lots of projects for us! We will certainly keep you posted.

Today I thought I would share with you a project that I have been working on. Have you ever heard of "dryer balls?" I hadn't until the other day. These little woolen balls are intended to replace dryer sheets and fabric softener as a greener alternative. It has also been said that they reduce drying time, conserving energy. Well, that all sounds great right?! I thought so until I looked around to buy them! Apparently these little gems are expensive! Some of the sites we looked at had them listed for around 20 dollars a pair(you want to use 4 to 6 balls per load)!


So we decided to make our own. For WAYYYYY cheaper! Here's how it goes:

1. 100% Wool sweater(we found some at Goodwill for just a few dollars)
2. 100% Wool Yarn (I used 1 skein to make about 4 balls)
3. Essential oils for scenting (we used Lavender, Orange, and Tangerine)
4. Yarn Needle
5. Panty hose (old ones that you mever wear perhaps? Or just the cheapest ones you can find)
6. Sting or floss

So first, I cut out a square from the wool sweater(which I washed first). It is about 4 inches x 6 inches. I chose a scent and dabbed the oil on the sweater piece, about 10 drops should do. I rolled it into as close of a ball shape as I could make and then used my yarn needle to start the yarn through the flap of sweater on the outside of the ball and through another part of the ball. No need to tie it, it just gives you a place to start your yarn.

From there I just started wrapping the yarn around and around.

Keep wrapping until your ball is about the size of a tennis ball. I went for a textured look with mine, the way you wrap the yarn doesn't matter since it will all bind together during the felting process.

Once you have it approximately the right size, snip your yarn a few inches from the ball and thread the loose end onto your needle. Using the needle, sew the end into the ball until you cant see it anymore. The longer the end  you sew in, the less likely it will unravel.

Add a few more drops of your essential oils to the ball and then you are ready for the felting process!

This is where those old panty hose come in handy. To bind the ball together and make it solid rather than string, you need to felt it. This was totally new to me but easy to do.

Put the ball all the way into the toe of the panty hose, and pull the hose tight around it. Tie it off with the string or dental floss. The first time I did I just knotted the hose between each ball, which worked great until I had to untie them! Apparently they tighten up a bit in the wash!

Now you just have to wash them and dry them in the hose (no soap necessary) on the hottest cycles you have! That will felt them together and tighten them up, and that's it! Fairly simple to make and they last for ages apparently!

I was surprised at how easy they were to make and that they still smelled like the oil after I washed them(I was pretty skeptical)

The most expensive part of this project were the oils. Considering how little of it you use though, you will have tons left over for future use. So it cost about $25 for me to make 12 balls, and how much money is that going to save me  in dryer sheets, softener and maybe even some drying time?!
Also, they would be cute and easy gifts......which is always a plus!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Spring Has (Almost) Sprung!

Well, we have been getting ready for Spring this week on the homestead. We have ordered our seeds, measured the garden, and constructed our cold frame. Last year when we started our seeds, we started them in the house. This worked out ok, however they didn't receive enough sunlight, and they were in constant danger of being eaten by Bob (the cat). So this year we realized we needed to do something different, and decided to build a cold frame.

                                                  Here is a picture of the finished product:

The frame will work like a miniature green house, the sun shines through the plastic and heats everything up and is trapped. Plants thrive in a warm, bright place so it will be perfect for starting them when it still is too early to put them in the ground. A huge benefit to having a cold frame in a colder climate like we live in is that it will extend our growing period. It is hard to judge when the last frost will be here in Michigan, so we will be able to start our plants early without having to worry about losing them to frost.

We took a trip to our nearest Menard's to purchase supplies. After a lot of research we found that Menard's was the most cost efficient place to get twin-wall polycarbonate (a.k.a.: greenhouse plastic). We considered using old windows as a substitute for the Polycarbonate, however since we built it onto the side of the house, we risk losing them to the icicles in the winter. If you were to build one independent from your house however, using old windows is a popular choice, and a great way to recycle.

Our materials included:
And a few miscellaneous hardware items. (Nuts, bolts, screws, etc.)

We (and when I say we, I mean Cody) built the frame on the side of the house as we are going to use it as a passive solar air exchanger in the winter, so we really only built 3 sides. We did have to remove the siding from that part of the house, but we are going to reuse that siding to cover the area that we added the pantry to.

                                          Cody pulling off the siding where the frame will be:

Cody didn't have any sort of blueprint for the frame, so he just built it to fit our needs. It only took about 2 days, and the whole project cost us about $200. First he built the frame and added the plywood to seal the ends. Then Erin painted the frames to match the house. Once the paint was dry Cody insulated the ends and stapled foil insulation around the entire inside. Next he added the Polycarbonate sheets to the top, attaching them with the hinges so we can easily access the inside. Lifting the sheets will also work as ventilation for the plants later in the spring when it gets warm enough. It provides us with approximately 48 square feet of growing space. We built it on the South side of the house for maximum sun exposure.

                                                       Another view of the finished frame:

Now that we got this project done we are really looking forward to starting out plants! Since our season will be extended and it will protect them from frost we will be able to start them soon!

Monday, March 12, 2012

It IS Easy Being Green......

Kermit the Frog has been telling us for years "It's not easy being green." Well, we are here to tell you, Kermit is wrong. As a matter of fact, it IS easy being green! This past week we have been working on simple projects around the house that make living green an easy thing to do! Of course we have been recycling, and cutting back on paper towels and other disposables, which are a few easy ways to be green but we decided to take it a little farther with some DIY projects that make green living easy.

The first project we tackled was to replace our current porch light with a motion sensing light. This is a greener option because it conserves energy and saves on electricity. We would turn on the old light when we left the house so that we could see when we got home after dark, and it stayed on the entire time, wasting electricity. The motion sensing light still runs through the old light switch so that we can still turn it on only when we want it, but it doesn't draw power the entire time because the light only comes on when it senses motion. The nice thing about this light is that you can set the length of time that you want the light shining for, and the sensitivity so that it doesn't come on every time the wind blows!

In this picture, Cody is wiring the new light into the old wiring, so we can use the same switch! (Please pardon the looks of the house, as we just bought it and it is a work-in-progress)

 Here is our new light!! It cost about $50 from Home Depot. It took about 15 minutes to hook up.

The next project we worked on was insulating the water heater and hot water pipes. Did you know you can buy a jacket for your water heater?? Apparently you can! This was a very simple and quick project that has made a noticeable difference in out water temperature already! The insulation of the water heater makes it so that the tank doesn't lose heat and doesn't re-heat the same water as often, wasting energy. The insulation of the pipes allows the water to stay at the maximum temperature all the way to your faucet, thus minimizing the amount of hot water you need. It cost about $35 dollars for the supplies, and took about 2 hours to complete.

This first picture is of the tank in its new jacket! 

 Here are the pipes with their insulation on them! (Again, sorry for the background, our basement is also a work-in-progress, its like a spider sanctuary down there......Erin won't go near it hehe)

The most advanced project that we accomplished this week was hooking cold water up to our washing machine. Before we bought the house, it sat vacant for about 5 years, and was not properly winterized. Because of this, and the fact that Michigan has some harsh temperatures in the winter, the pipe running cold water to the washer burst. We have been washing our clothes in only hot water, which worked, however it wasn't energy efficient. We had to cut out the old section of pipe and solder in a new piece, also we had to replace the valve that connects the pipe to the washer. Cody got to practice his soldering skills a lot this week! It cost about $50 and took about 5 hours to complete. This will save us money in the long run because we won't be using so much hot water, and as per Erin's mom, it is better to wash your dark clothes in cold water anyways! This project will make our lives so much greener because of the energy it preserves, because as we all know, laundry is a never ending cycle!

The new section of pipe soldered into place.

And finally the easiest change we have made is using power strips(surge protectors) around the house. There is a phenomenon called Phantom Loading (dun dun dun), which means that our electronics such as televisions, radios, dvd players, microwaves, etc. draw power even when we think they are off. These are known as "energy vampires," basically anything with a stand-by setting is still drawing electricity even when it is shut off. All the lights and clocks that are still going on these electronics use power, and although it doesn't seem like a lot, it is like a dripping faucet and when it is going all the time, it really adds up. A large portion of a homes energy usage is due to phantom loading(depending on where you look, the statistic range from 6 to 60 percent, but it obviously varies per home). By plugging your electronics into a power strip you can just flip the switch when you are not using them and stop the energy vampires. I mean, do we really need 3 clocks in the kitchen?

These projects serve many purposes, including raising the value of our home, saving us money when it comes to the electric bill, and most importantly making our home more energy efficient!

SO, regardless of what Kermit may tell us, it really IS easy being green!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Winter Wonderland

A snowstorm hit Northern Michigan with fury Friday night. 30,000 of us were out of power for over 48 hours.

That is a picture of a road. The snow is so heavy that those strong maple branches that are usually above my head are now touching the ground. It was a cold day, and us Firefighters/EMT's were going non-stop. Police declared a state of emergency on the roads and we were out of power until Sunday evening. This is  why it is important to have basic knowledge of sustaining yourself. Even if you aren't living off the grid, or providing all of your food and electricity, you should be able to go a few days without relying on others.  A foot snow can knock out a whole county and many are unprepared to face such an issue! Every grocery store and restaurant closed down, so it is important to have your food preserved, and an alternative energy source!

Preserving your own food through canning, dehydrating, pickling, etc. is a good way to ensure that even if you aren't able to use your stove or run to the store you won't find yourself going hungry. It is a simple way to store the produce from your garden so that it lasts for a substantial amount of time. There are plenty of resources for learning how to preserve your own food and it will be a useful skill when it comes time to save your goods and they will be available when you need them.

Here is a link to some of our favorite books that include information about preserving your own food:

Another important thing to have when emergency strikes is an alternative source of heat and energy. Some alternative energy sources can be as simple as a small generator. Enough to run a space heater would be sufficient to ensure your pipes (and you) don't freeze! It is not a good idea to wait until you are out of power to buy a generator because it is when you lose power that everyone flocks to the hardware stores to stock up! (Please ensure that you read the user manuals and warning on your generators, and DO NOT use them in enclosed places as you risk Carbon Monoxide poisoning!!!!) Other more long term solutions for alternative energy/heat sources include solar panels, wind turbines, wood stoves, pellet stoves etc. These are all ways to not only ensure that you will always have heat and power, but they conserve energy and are conducive to a greener way of living.

Building a homestead, living green, and being sustainable are not only healthier and happier options, they can help you to be prepared in a state of emergency.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Vermicomposting.....As Beginners

Well friends, we have worms!! That's right, we have 2 pounds of worms(about 2,000 worms) in our house right now! In an attempt to cut back on our waste production, and with the desire to improve our soil quality we have decided to begin Vermicomposting(composting with worms)!

After much research we built our worm house out of two plastic totes. The inner tote has about 15 holes 1/2 an inch in diameter drilled into the bottom, with window screen covering them, allowing for moisture to seep into the bottom tote, a catch bin. We also drilled holes into the lid with another screen attached in order to allow ventilation.

Once we built our worm house we ordered our wiggly friends! We ordered our two pounds of worms from: Uncle Jim's Worm Farm. It cost $39.95 plus shipping/handling for our worms to be shipped to our door. We learned in our research that it is best to use red wigglers because they can "stand the heat" better, literally they are the best to stand the heat produced by the composting material. Our worms arrived a little on the skinny side, as they got a little hungry and thirsty on their trip, but the packaging included instructions on how to perk them up a bit. The worms once acclimated, produce their entire mass in casting a day (worm poop, the good stuff for composting), and adjust their numbers based the size of their container and quantity of food.

We collect our kitchen scraps in a recycled ice cream container(the gallon size) and freeze them for 3 days. We actually have 2 containers so we can rotate between collecting and freezing (well and cause we like ice cream!) The reason, I found out in my research, that you want to freeze the scraps is because it kills the gnat eggs that may be present in the food, and it helps keep down the odor. We have not had a problem with any smell though!

To get started we added a bag of top soil for the worms to get comfy in, and some shredded paper to regulate moisture and as worm food. Then we added the first of the kitchen scraps and our hungry and thirsty worms. After we added the worms we added a few cups of water to moisten everything. It was a pretty simple process all together!

After all that, we wait a few months and we will have nutrient rich compost to feed our garden!

A few sources that helped us get going: