July 2014

The Blessing of Busted Plans: Part 1 – Our “Twisted Tail”

We’ve noticed that some of the best times that we have had together as a couple and as a family have occurred when something unexpected happens and we end up taking life on the fly.  On two occasions recently, these wonderful moments happened under what could have been very stressful situations, and they ended up being some of our favorite days in recent memory.  Here is one of the stories, and we’ll follow up with the other sometime soon.

So, it is no secret among our family and friends that Maria and I really enjoy country music.  Neither of us grew up with it, and in fact we only started listening about four years ago when I took a few days off of work to help a contractor to frame out our deck.  The guy brought a radio with him, and we ended up listening to country music for about 10 hours a day.  After three days of this, I wouldn’t necessarily call it brainwashing, but I quickly became a fairly devout listener to our local country music station, and eventually Maria got hooked too.  We definitely connected to something within the twangy tunes, catchy beats, singable lyrics, and generally positive themes (other than a notable preponderance of songs about drinking and pretty girls, but there are certainly worst things in the world).  Anyway, after listening to country music for a year or two, the Zac Brown Band emerged as one of our favorite bands.  For a long time, we looked for an opportunity to see them live, but the concerts were always too far away, too expensive, or too long (weekend festivals, etc…).  Finally, they made some stops in eastern PA, and to my surprise, Maria got us tickets to see them for my birthday this year! 

I was psyched.  The concert was on Friday night at 7 pm in Camden, NJ; just across the river from Philly, about a 90 minute drive from our house on a normal day.  Maria had arranged for her parents to watch the kids, and we were going to stay overnight in Philly after seeing the concert so that we wouldn’t have to drive all of the way back home afterwards.  The plan was that Maria would pick me up close to where I work around 4:00 (it was on our way to Philly), we would stop at the bed and breakfast to check in around 5:00, and grab a quick bite to eat before heading over to the concert before 7:00.  Well, like the best laid plans, it didn’t quite work out the way that we expected.  Maria hit a bunch of Friday afternoon traffic on her way to our rendezvous, and didn’t end up picking me up until 4:30.  Unfortunately, the traffic didn’t stop there…we ended up getting snarled in bumper-bumper stop-and-go traffic almost all of the way down to Philly.  What should have been a 1 hour drive ended up taking 2 hours and 30 minutes.  Gotta love the city 😛  Despite having a fun destination, traffic on Route 76 heading into the city is enough to crack even the strongest composures (which mine is not…I was FUMING).  By the time we found parking in downtown Philly and got to the bed-and-breakfast, it was about 6:15.    Of course, in typical bed-and-breakfast fashion, the proprietor (a very nice older woman who ran the B&B in a couple of rooms in her historic row home) was very interested in sitting down, talking, and getting to know us before giving us the keys to the room.  By now, my blood pressure was through the roof, but I didn’t have the heart to give her the cold shoulder, so we chatted for a few minutes before she finally showed us to our rooms.  By the time we walked out, it was 6:30…just 30 minutes left before the concert started.

At this point, we had two options.  Skip dinner, leave right away for the concert, and probably get there right on time but risk not having the opportunity to eat anything, OR stop in for a quick bite to eat somewhere, accepting that we might be a little late to the concert.  Neither of us do very well emotionally on an empty stomach, so we decided that it would be in the best interest of the evening and our relationship if we ate first…besides, we would probably only miss the opening act, which was someone that we had never heard of before.  Luckily (but not out of character), Maria had done some research on local restaurants and had found a smokehouse called The Twisted Tail, complete with local meats and microbrews, just around the corner from the B&B.  “OK…we’ll stop in, grab one beer, and the quickest dishes that they can make us and we will head back out to the concert”.        

Still being pretty early for the city crowd, the restaurant wasn’t very crowded when we walked in and we had our choice of seats at the bar.  The bartender (“Shazam”) greeted us with a smile and a c0uple of great beers.  After the afternoon we had, I am pretty sure it was the best beer that I had ever tasted.  His recommendation for the quickest bites to eat were the Pulled Pork Empanadas and Smoked Chorizo Sausage Tacos.  we took his advice, and he was right…they came out fast.  OK…I am not one for drama, but those also might have been the most delicious pieces of food that I have had in a really long time.  The texture of the meat was amazing, and the flavor of the smoked sausage was phenomenal.  My mouth is watering just thinking about it.

For a time check, it was about 6:50, 10 minutes before the concert the started.  Both of us had finally settled down from the drive, and we were finally getting to the point where we could actually enjoy each other’s company.  The next 5 minutes went something like this…

  • Joe – “Hey Shazam…how long will it take to get from here to Camden?”
  • Shazam – “On a Friday, at least 45 minutes man…why you wanna go there?”
  • Joe – “Well, we have tickets for a concert over there for the Zac Brown Band”
  • Shazam – “Damn.  Never heard of ’em.  Well, we have live music here tonight starting at 7:30.  You want another beer?”

The thought of getting back in the car for another 45 minutes was soul crushing to both of us, especially because we would most certainly miss a big chunk of the concert even if we left right away.  We were getting more and more comfortable as the seconds wore on, and the thought of being elbow to elbow with 10,000 other people also did not feel terribly appealing.

  • Joe – “Maria…how much did we pay for those tickets again?”   
  • Maria – “Mmm…not too much”
  • Joe – “Was it more than I could pay you to get back into the car right now?”
  • Maria – “Hell no”

Did you ever get the feeling that you were in the place that you were supposed to be despite having planned to be somewhere else?  At this moment, we both started to have that feeling, and ultimately came to the decision that we needed to have fun with one another in a relaxed environment (which we had just then achieved) more than we needed to follow through with the plans that we had made (which threatened to totally stress us out).  While it felt really weird to adjust our plans so drastically, it just felt right for us to follow our gut and stay where we were.

  • Joe – “Hey Shazam, I think we’ll take you up on that second round of beers.  Do you think you might be able to sell a couple of tickets to a country concert?  We’ll give you a 50% cut.”
  • Shazam – “Heck no man…nobody wants to go over to Jersey tonight”

To make an already long story a little shorter, we spent the rest of the night at The Twisted Tail, listening to live music (Christopher Davis-Shannon), ordering just about every appetizer that they had on the menu over the course of the night (highlighted by the Country BBQ Spare Ribs…Good Lawd were they good!!!), sampling many of their beers and whiskey mixers as well (including the Shazam 103, our bartender’s one hundred and third attempt at a custom drink, made of whiskey, herbs – thyme and rosemary, I think -a little lime and a little seltzer…absolutely delicious), getting to know our bartender a little better (Shazam was actually Michael, an architect by day and father of two kids), and playing darts with Maria’s sister and her fiancé’ who live a few blocks from the restaurant and came out to join us after hearing that we were in town (despite her fiancé competing in a triathlon the next morning, which he ended up posting one of his best personal times in…you’re welcome Lou ;-).  While it was a huge departure from what we had planned, and I felt pretty bad about not taking full advantage of the birthday present concert tickets that Maria had centered the night around, we ended up having one of the best, fun-loving, and stress-free nights of our lives together, and I wouldn’t have traded it for the world.  The next day, we went home and downloaded the live album from the Zac Brown Band, and have listened to that a bunch of times since…close enough for now;-)

A lot of times, it requires focus and dedication to power through and make your plans work.  And sometimes, just sometimes, it is better to stop, appreciate where you are in that moment, and just enjoy having a night out with your pretty girl at the whiskey and smokehouse.  Now that almost sounds like a country song 🙂   

front of our house

Getting creative – making the most of a small and imperfect piece of land

Happy Independence Day!!  On this holiday, I am thankful for many things.  Thankful for the freedoms that I enjoy in my life; to live the way that I choose to, and to express my opinions openly (including through this blog).  Thankful for the people that have sacrificed so much in order for me to have these freedoms, including my younger brother Scott, who recently re-enlisted for his second tour of duty as a US Marine.  Thankful for my wife and kids, and the loving family that we are surrounded with.  Thankful for being able to live in a stable, caring, and supportive community.  Some of the times that I feel the most free are when I am working on my property, making improvements to our home, taking care of our animals, or planting something that will (hopefully) provide for my family for years to come.  That is what my post is about today…finding ways to work with what you have, even if it might not be ideal.  We wish you and your families a happy, healthy, and free Independence Day.  Enjoy!!

If there is one thing that plagues the mind of the “newborn” homesteader, it is land fever; that horrible realization that the puny property you bought before you had any aspirations of a land-based lifestyle could not possibly support the abundance, productivity and diversity that you now crave.  You convince yourself that surely, in order to do this properly, you need at LEAST 20 acres.  After months of “window shopping” on realtor.com or landsof(insert your state here).com, you might come to some of the same conclusions that I did.  Large plots of land close to where I currently live would require me to save for at least 10 years to even afford a down payment on and could never be affordable on an agricultural lifestyle OR to find land that I can afford, I would need to uproot our entire family and move to some remote part of the country, far away from our support network of immediate family, friends and local community that we have worked so hard to establish.  Neither of those are very palatable for us. At first, this realization that you may not be able to get at that big plot of land can be crushing to the budding dream of the homesteader.  I know that it was for me.  I nearly resolved myself to a life of a tiny garden and weekly trips to the CSA and farmers market for our food (which is still awesome, and a HUGE step up from trips to the mega-mart, just not what my heart wants).  Luckily for us small-plot landowners, there has been a ton of innovation in the urban homesteading movement which has proven that even with the tiniest plots of “land” (sometimes as small as the roof of a building or a vacant lot on a city block), huge amounts of productivity can be obtained if you can get just a little bit creative.  After reading about some of these inspirational case studies, I was re-energized.  “If they could do it on a freaking roof, surely I can do it on an acre-and-a-half, even if it is a little (OK, maybe a lot) shaded”.  Here are the ideas that we came up with to make better use of our land.

Give up the yard – There is only one “small” spot (~30′ x 50′) on our property that is both clear and even remotely level.  This spot was created when we removed a huge oak tree behind our house that had become diseased and threatened to crush our roof, opening up a nice canopy of sun-exposure that quickly gave way to some grass growing.  At one point, we had allocated this space mentally for a yard.  A place where our boys can run around, play soccer, roughhouse and have a good old fashioned American childhood.  After a few months of mowing the thing (a useless activity if ever there was one, tending a patch of completely unproductive greenery on a weekly basis to keep it a uniform height and free of weeds in order to…wait, why the heck do we do that again?), and a realization that there was no where else on the property that was suitable for a traditional garden, we decided to scale up our growing activities and move the kids play space to a mulched area nestled in the shade of the woods.  This opened up a bunch more land for us to put in 10 raised beds that we now grow a range of annual and perennial plantings in.  Trust me, the boys have not lacked in learning soccer, playing football, or rough housing, and it has forced them further into the woods where more creative play and learning happens anyway.  And, there is a LOT less yard to mow, which is awesome for me.

Our "yard" turned garden

Our “yard” turned garden

Use the edges – When we first conceived of a homestead “design” for our property, I was obsessed with that 30′ x 50′ open space where had put our garden, convinced that this would be the only suitable place for growing food on our poor little woodland glade.  However, through a number of exposures to the concepts of permaculture, I became more aware of the concept of using “edges” as additional usable space for growing food, especially perennials.  In addition to that 1,500 sq ft garden space, I also “found” about 300 linear feet of space that also got decent sun exposure where I eventually planted things like blueberries, goji berries, strawberries, and even some things that are OK with some shade like gooseberries and currants.  Not too bad…things were starting to look up!!!  This is where we have spent most of our energy in the last year or two.  Future plans include adding some edible ornamentals (e.g. rosa rugosa) to the landscaping around our house, and putting in some more vining species around our fences (e.g. – seedless grapes and arctic kiwis). 


Some goji berries trellised up  the side of our deck

Some goji berries trellised up the side of our deck

Traditional landscaping replaced with Echinacea, chamomile, and feverfew

Traditional landscaping replaced with Echinacea, chamomile, and feverfew

“Stack functions” with some well placed contour beds – There are two awkward strips of land that run on either side of our house.  Both have a good slope to them, and aren’t very useable as any kind of a recreational space.  One is on the south side of the house, is fairly shaded and has major erosion problems (it is the side of the house where all of the ground water gets channeled when it rains), and the other is on the north side of the house, is much more sunny, but is pretty arid an doesn’t support much growth other than sparse grass and weeds.  One idea that we had for both of these was to add a series of “contour beds” around the property.  Contour beds are basically “raised beds” (really just elevated dirt mounts) that are built level with the contour of the land (hence contour bed) to control the flow of water.  On the south end of the house, this would prevent erosion.  This would also allow us to channel some water strategically to the north end of the house and hydrate the soil in the more unused, sunny part of the property.  The bonus (or “function stacking” in the language of permaculture) is that, in addition to fixing some of our water flow issues, this would also greatly expand our available planting areas allowing for the addition of shade loving herbs and fodder for the animals into the beds on the south slope and some additional sun-loving fruit trees, root stock (namely sunchokes and sweet potatoes) and berry bushes to the north slope.  This would mostly consume our yard with food production while making now barren wastes of space into beautiful, relaxing, and productive spaces.  I imagine that they will also become some kind of strider bike slalom course for the kids at some point, but that is cool too.  Not many of these have been installed yet, but much more on how we will build these beds in future posts!

Our first attempt at a little contour bed with some young pear trees, potatoes, and other assorted flowers/herbs

Our first attempt at a little contour bed with some young pear trees, potatoes, and other assorted flowers/herbs

Embrace the “dark side” – I have long thought that the majority of our land that is a shaded wooded lot would be a waste as far as food production goes.  From observation, we found that native blackberries and raspberries did reasonably well with only minimal amounts of sun, so we transplanted a bunch from around the property to the edges of our chicken run.  Recently, I found another solution that I am anxious to try for our heavily shaded areas, and that is edible mushroom production.  As species that thrive in a moist, shady, woodland environment, mushrooms could be just the thing to utilize the north facing side of our wooded lot.  In addition to being delicious, highly nutritious, and very storable, they are also a very high value and low maintenance crop.  I am very excited to try a few different versions of cultivation of King Stropharia, Oyster, and Shiitake varieties.  Lots to learn there though, since there are some wild strains that can mimic these edible varieties which can be poisonous.  Probably won’t hit those until fall, but will be sure to post about it when we do!

Native raspberry plants transplanted en mass to the borders of our chicken run

Native raspberry plants transplanted en mass to the borders of our chicken run

Make use of container gardening – While we haven’t done a whole lot of this, we have heard of lots of folks having success with gardening in containers of various sizes (small flower pots to 5 gallon buckets to 60+ gallon feed troughs).  We’ve started out here with some sun loving herbs in containers on our deck, and have pretty good success this year with marjoram, basil, rosemary, and stevia.  My next experiment will be carrots in a 5 gallon bucket, which I intend to plant late summer for a fall harvest.

Expand strategically – Like most homesteaders in the northeastern US, we do a lot of our heating with wood.  Since we have lived in our current home, we have harvested 100% of our heating wood from our property.  Initially, I selected trees to harvest from the property that were very close to the house or that were inconvenient for one reason or another.  Recently though, I have found myself thinking a little more strategically about the “agricultural opportunity” or our hardwood management, and selectively culling those trees that, in addition to being dangerous or inconvenient for some reason, would also open up additional spaces for planting a more productive species.  In this way, we have mostly focused on the north and south ends of the house, continually opening up spaces of day-long sun exposure where we can replace the fallen hardwoods with fruit trees and other productive plants to create a diverse “food-forest” style system.

At  this point, we are only about 40% into the implementation of this new plan and already we have more work than we can handle on a given day (just the way we like it!).  While my heart will probably never give up on that dream of having a big property, I have found that an intensively managed small plot can be every bit as engaging and satisfying as a huge piece of land.  Honestly, at this point, I don’t even know what I would do with 20 acres of land!

What have you done to get creative with your small plot of land?  We’d love to heard your ideas!