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 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!               

Blueberry Heirlooms – Carrying on the family line

For the last few years, Maria’s parents had been toying with the idea of moving from their home in western PA.  While they had lived in their house for almost 30  years, had raised their family there, and still had a lot of extended family in the area, all of the kids had since moved out and started their own lives in different parts of the northeast US leaving them with a pretty empty nest.  Eventually, the pull of their children and 5 grandkids that had been added to the mix drove them off of the mountains outside of Altoona, PA.  In March of 2014, they moved within 5 minutes of our house.  We had long imagined welcoming them into their new home with a great celebration, parades and fanfare.  However, as fate would have it, we instead ushered them into this new chapter in their life with a wonderful stomach virus, which we generously shared with everyone who came within breathing distance of us.  Despite that non-ideal beginning, we have truly loved every minute of having them closer to us, though we know that the move was tough for  them.

Among the things that were difficult for Maria’s parents to leave behind when they moved were 6 blueberry bushes that they had maintained in their backyard.  Passed down from Maria’s grandfather, these bushes had been in the family for more than 50 years.  After being in their yard for more than 15 years, they had only recently reached peak production.  The family had really enjoyed the pleasure of having gallons upon gallons of fresh blueberries in the summer and frozen surplus all winter long.  It seemed a crime that they would need to leave them behind, but we were struggling with finding ways to transport them safely across the state.  Maria’s uncle tends a commercial scale blueberry operation, and advised against trying to uproot the bushes entirely, as they could easily die upon transplant.  Ultimately, we ended up with the idea of propagating the bushes by taking “cuttings” (short branches of last year’s growth).  

Neither of us knew anything about propagating blueberries, but thanks to the internet, we found about 1,000 ways to do it.  I settled on one method that fit our system the best, though we did make some adaptations.  Luckily, their move date coincided well with the appropriate timing for taking cuttings with this method (late March), so on the night before they moved, I called Maria’s dad and asked him to grab me some twigs.  The next day, he delivered to us enough cuttings to start 18 blueberry bushes.  Here is what we tried.

  • Instead of using a 4′ x 8′ propagation bed recommended at the linked site, I instead opted for 18 individual 6″ plastic flower pots
  • We filled each pot with sterilized sphagnum peat moss (post-game note: make sure that you pre-wet peat moss.  I did not, and it is absolutely hydrophobic until it is fully wetted…added a couple hours of rework)
  • I cut the blueberry branches into lengths of ~4″-6″. selecting those that had the best buds
Blueberry cutting

Blueberry cutting

  • Each cutting was then inserted into the filled pots, leaving 2-4 buds and ~1-2″ of branch above the soil, being careful that the branch did not contact the bottom of the pot, and that the top of the buds did not extend beyond the top of the pot. 
  • Each pot was then covered in saran wrap, which was pulled taut and fastened with rubber bands
A mini blueberry greenhouse

A mini blueberry greenhouse

  • These pots were then put into seed trays, soaked with water, and placed into the greenhouse in early April.  They are watered every couple of days by adding water to the bottom of the seed trays, which is then taken up by the pots.
  • In mid-April, the pots were supplemented with a rooting stimulant.   While not exactly organic, it received very high ratings for success rate.  For such an important task, I was willing to make a compromise, knowing that there would be no residual of this treatment when the plants start producing in 3-5 years.
  • At the end of May, many of the plants had sprouted leaves, and a few even started a bud or two.  I checked some of the cuttings for roots, but the ones that I had checked didn’t show any signs of them yet.  At this point with the weather warming up, they were starting to get a little baked out in the greenhouse, so I moved them to the shaded area under our deck.
A hopeful sprout in mid-June

A hopeful sprout in mid-June

With any luck, we will get at least 8-10 plants from the original 18 cuttings, giving our kids (and hopefully many generations to come) the opportunity to enjoy blueberries from the same plants as their great-grandparents did.  Hopefully, there will even be enough surplus plants that we can give a few to Maria’s parents and siblings so that they too can carry on the family blueberry heritage.   If you have any additional tips for starting blueberries from cuttings, let us know!!!