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Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Weird Vegetables for Your Homestead Garden

weird vegetablesOddly enough, we never really had an issue with the kids eating their vegetables. In fact, two of our kids, Joey and Elizabeth, are pescatarians who won't touch a slice of meat. Talk about your veggie connoisseurs. When we started our urban grazing garden all those years ago with a selection of weird vegetables and exotic fruits, it was just natural that snacks would be eaten off the vines and from bushes while they played in the backyard. Now that we have a more serious approach to gardening to increase our self-sufficiency for the table, we want to incorporate the same openness to keep everyone engaged. What better motivation to visit and tend to a family garden than the promise of a yummy snack?

We now have a great deal more space to work with in tour growing space, with strong, direct sunlight and fantastic soil. Wendie is putting in a dedicated carrot patch, while vining plants and big, busy tomatoes will have plenty of room to thrive without smothering out other selections. This means we can expand our selection and with us being us, and the kids missing their grazing garden, we have plenty of room to incorporate a greater variety of weird vegetables for fun as well as the nutritional value.

Weird Vegetables

weird vegetables
Mixing in some weird vegetables with the standards is one way we keep the garden interesting and fun. There's something special about harvesting a plant that isn't found in the grocery store, really driving home the idea of self-sufficiency. There's always something new that catches our attention and we bring in opinions from the peanut gallery when making our gardening choices. When the kids have a vested interest in what we grow, they are more interested in doing their part along the way.

Perhaps our first experiment was with Purple Majesty potatoes. Not only are they purple inside and out when harvested, but maintain their color when cooked. Potato salad never looks so festive as when speckled with chunks of color. Wendie discovered they make great potato chips as well.

weird vegetablesAnother color explosion that comes from the garden is from Starburst radishes, a white-skinned variety that thrives as a cold-weather variety. We plant these in early spring and again in the fall, as hot weather prompts them to bolt like nobody's business.

Starburst radishes are a great addition to a rotating garden because they go from seed to harvest in just 60 days. Sweetness lies just beneath the traditional peppery radish flavor, and their pink centers can breath another aspect of flair to a summer salad the sliced thin. This year, we are putting in a few more to try pickling them. I'm not sure they will out shine our dillies, but a little pickled radish makes a groovy garnish for everything from a cheese board to martinis.

weird vegetables
One thing we haven't tried yet but are looking forward to are Japanese White Eggs, a miniature eggplant variety that grows no larger than a chicken egg. Regular eggplants are a standard in our garden, with heavy production and a plethora of ways for preparation. I tend to take over the kitchen when deep frying eggplant, though we try to experiment as much as we can with our more prosperous cultivars when we can. Wendie is a master at eggplant parmesan, by the way.

For these white Japanese varieties, we are looking to up our stir-fry game. White Eggs have a 65 day maturity, and are also cold tolerant. Instead of bolting in hot weather, they turn yellow and bitter, so a late crop after the dog days of August is our best bet for getting them to the table.

Vegetables from Around the World

vegetables from around the worldTo enhance our fanaticism with hispanic foods, we plan on putting in some Mouse Melons, native to Central America and Mexico. These hot weather favorites may look like mini-watermelons with their striped-green skins, but are more along the lines of a cucumber. Watered heavily, these little suckers will spread like wildfire and produce several pounds of fruit per vine. They are slightly sour and have been part of some of the most delicious salads we have ever tasted.

vegetables from around the world
Now, I think I've talked about this before on the blog, but one thing I'm really looking forward to planting this season is Jersey Cabbage, better known as Walking Stick Kale. It is a standard cultivar of coastal Western Europe, from the English Isles all the way down to Portugal.

Walking Stick Kale is treated and cooked the same as regular kale, but the greatest thing about them is the height they grow on woody stalks. These stalks can then be harvested, trimmed, sealed and dried to make functioning walking sticks. I can't wait to get a bundle of these in the workshop to see what magic they will inspire. From one plant we get a massive infusion of vitamins as well as an opportunity to get creative with wood working. How can that not be an awesome addition to the garden?

Weird Fruits

weird fruitsWe decided long ago that fruits were integral to any gardening plans we would ever put together. Not only is a sweet berry or apple a great treat, but the perennial nature of fruits is a great addition to attract pollinators. We kept a healthy strawberry patch on the old urban homestead, and definitely plan to do the same here. However, alongside traditional varieties, we are looking at adding in some weird fruits like Pine Berries, a white strawberry cultivar that doesn't taste like pine cones, but rather pineapple. 

The strain comes from Scandinavia and is a great temperate fruit for our 5b growing zone. Even though strawberries are a little more labor intensive thanks to the need to thin out creepers, their nature is to come back stronger and stronger for a few years before they need replacing. A good layer of mulch in the fall will ensure they can withstand any cold nights winter wants to throw our way.

Exotic Vegetables

exotic vegetables
When looking for exotic vegetables to add to our kitchen garden, perhaps the single most important thing to we consider is whether we will eat them. Some vegetables look amazing in the ground, but when prepared we might not enjoy the taste. So, after deciding if we can actually grow them in our zone, it comes down to flavor. That makes sense, right?

We also research if they are considered an invasive plant. The last thing we want to learn is that the veggie we though was so awesome is actually a voracious leech that would take over the garden, the yard and the neighborhood. We never slipped into the mint armageddon that so many have faced before us, but we did have to battle Japanese Knot Weed for years. Never again.

Speaking of mint, we do enjoy planting it in containers for a garnish or julep now and then. This year, we've discovered Chocolate Mint, a fruity little cultivar with a strong hint of chocolate and undertones of pineapple. Maybe we'll try pairing those in a smoothie with the Pine Berries?

We really enjoy sharing our life from the off grid homestead, and would love to hear from you. What weird vegetables do you plant each year? Do you try and incorporate vegetables from around the world into your garden design? We want to hear from you, so please add your voice to the conversation below.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Homestead Living Skills

homestead living skillsI have to admit, when I first started thinking of writing this particular homestead living skills piece, Napoleon Dynamite came to mind. "You know, like nunchuck skills, bow hunting skills, computer hacking skills..." I don't have any of those (yet), but I suppose one can dream. No, the idea here was to discuss the practical side of living on an off grid homestead and what talents come into play on a daily basis.

Between Wendie and myself, we bring a lot to the table. From small business management to gardening, our lives are constructs of our talents. When we're looking down the throat of a three-day snow storm you can bet that we're prepared for the worst, but expect only the best. This is simply because we have confidence in our homestead living skills and know when something is outside of our wheelhouse. When in doubt, we have no issue in seeking an expert's advice.

Homestead Living Skills

Perhaps the most fundamental and critical element of our abilities is our willingness to be open minded and flexible. That's not to say that when the kids say they really don't feel like having a roast for dinner we zip-lock that sucker and throw it back in the freezer. We made that meal for them, so you bet they're going to eat it. Rather, we take each task to heart and one step at a time, prepared to stop and think about what we're doing. When the six of us start going in a hundred directions all at once just to get a couple things accomplished, it's time to have everyone take a break and remind them, 'One thing at a time. Just one thing.' The focus is concentrated and we get it done. Homestead living skills start with a mindfulness to slow down, think and appreciate the task at hand.

homestead living skills
For those looking to join the party and begin a life of homesteading for themselves, our advice is to not only know what you can accomplish on your own, but what you cannot without help. Installing a shower head in the bathroom is a great skill, but that doesn't make any of us a plumber. If your dreams include self-sufficiency, be prepared to ask for help.

For us, the old urban backyard garden prompted us to educate ourselves in food storage and canning. Aside from the Ball canning website, the USDA was a boon for not only tips and tricks, but recipes as well. Off grid for some means no internet connection but for us, we embrace it and use it to our advantage. In addition to speaking with others in our situation, a great deal of information comes from online sources. In fact, we're knee-deep in binging the Vino Farm bee keeping channel on YouTube.

As for the chickens, we use various sources to learn how to keep them healthy and productive. There were times when we erred on the side of caution and our own misinformed opinions, like the time we hung a red heat lamp in the coop all winter, replacing it every time the birds hopped up and pecked it out. We did have a few below zero nights, but even on the 20 and 30 degree nights we thought it would be needed. Though it kept us in eggs, we would soon learn how chickens regulate adequate warmth when conditions are right. A good flock with full bellies can produce enough heat to melt the snow on the roof of their coop. Now, it has to be pretty bitter for us to worry.

Frugal Living

frugal livingAside from the technical aspects of gardening and livestock raising, we also took a serious look at how consumed. How we used groceries, our money and our time. You might say we were more intermediate with our frugal living before on the urban homestead, but now we're comfortable saying we've approached the graduate level. Each new meal has to have at least two more uses. With a roast chicken, we plan on sandwiches, a pot pie and soup stock. A roast is the same. We can stretch a salad out for three days without adding in new veggies, and any meal consisting of fish becomes fish cakes and chowder at the minimum. With food, it's being conscious of our leftovers.

Grocery shopping is generally my responsibility, though I love it when Wendie joins me or decides she wants a turn to herself. I'll bring the kids when I can as well, teaching them not to look at the initial price, but the price per weight or volume. We have discussions about the stigma of store brands and how they are most times different in packaging only. We also talk about brands that we won't buy based on their business practices and why. Frugal living through the lens of grocery shopping isn't about buying cheap, but rather getting the full value of whatever we happen to choose. It's smart shopping, and a medium-load grocery store trip can easily cross into the 90 minute to 2 hour time frame. With that much invested, it better be enjoyable.

Homestead DIY

homestead diyNot only do we save money by building and repairing with our own hands around the homestead, we increase our emotional investment. This is our forever home, so it's not about adding equity to flip at some later time. No, for us, the more we put into it the more it becomes home. Before the bedrooms saw their first boxes unpacked, I had the wood shop up and running, doing little repair jobs about the house. In the basement office, we put in a wall to wall, floor to ceiling bookcase to house our library and used the project to teach the kids about the importance of homestead DIY.

The wood shop is a significant aspect of our homestead DIY approach, not only because of the work we can do on the property but how it is also an income stream. From picking up handyman jobs to crafting chess cabinets and assorted items for sale on, the shop brings in money. The shop is run through one of our businesses and half of all profits go back into new equipment and supplies. The other half helps pay what few bills we have.

Modern Homesteading Ideas

modern homesteading ideasOne thing we are very aware of is that we aren't experts in anything. We definitely bring a certain set of homestead living skills to the table, but we can't afford to become complacent in our projects. Moving the garden to a square foot plan was revolutionary for us, as was integrating the seasonal meat bird flock with our egg layers. Investing in our tractor was a smart move in the sense of not having to hire others to come in an tackle our driveway grading or snow removal. This means being open to modern homesteading ideas.

Our next addition to the homestead will be the integration of bees, of which we'll start writing about in more detail soon. As much as we have done to educate ourselves, it's a new part of our lives we will have to learn to incorporate properly. The final layout of the garden is yet to be determined, and having a full-sun plot for the first time means adjusting our shade gardening practices. This means being careful not to get comfortable with presumptions of what we know about gardening. A full-sun growing space is a world's difference from our comfort zone.

Modern homesteading ideas lean towards the past, rather than the future. Instead of relying on technology and the latest in organic fertilizer solutions, there is a serious movement to sustenance farming techniques practiced by settlers of the west. Soil conditioning, pest control and crop rotation in the garden. For livestock, it's remembering that these animals have the heritage ability to care for themselves more than we give them credit for. That doesn't mean hands-off, but rather being selective in what we do for management. For example, chickens are more than capable of brooding and hatching their own chicks, removing our need for specialty warmers and turners and chick nurseries in the basement.

Living Off the Land

living off the land
As much as we put stock in our homestead living skills, we do our best not to get buried in what we can accomplish in the here and now. There will always be something that needs to be done, whether it's repairing the brood door on the summer coop or dragging out fallen branches from the woods to add to the burn pile. Taking time and appreciating our little slice of heaven means enjoying a breath of fresh air when we want and taking a walk through the woods. We may not be living off the land by hunting or trapping, but we will hunt for deer sheds or good-looking saplings to use for carved walking sticks.

We've started tagging maple trees, though it might be a little premature to say that syrup is in our near future. We pay attention to where animal tracks are coming from and going towards, and always keep an eye out for our resident mating pair of bald eagles. Wild turkeys have started to wander through the farm curious to check out the chickens. It has us thinking of getting an education in turkey hunting for the freezer.

The point is, going into a project as large as an off-grid homestead means bringing some level of experience along for the ride. You don't have to know everything to start a successful small farm, but the more know, well, the more your grow.

Sorry for that tired old pun.

We love sharing our experiences with you all, and would love to hear what you consider essential homestead living skills. Share your frugal living and modern homesteading ideas with us by adding to the conversation using the comments section below.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Family Off Grid Living

off grid livingSomewhere in the back of our minds we knew there would be growing pains. Moving to the country wasn't completely foreign to us as parents, as we both grew up in rural settings. Wendie was raised on a gentleman's seacoast horse farm, surrounded by ponies and tall pasture grass. For me, it was the wilds of the New Hampshire woods, pine trees as far as you could imagine with a break for the Great Bay and punctuated farmland and apple orchards. But in the aspect of family off grid living, it was as much a new concept for us as the kids.

Though we both moved from house to house as children, the allure of living in the country as little ones always stuck with us. Our lives in the city as adults found us wishing for better a better way of living.

Off Grid Living

off grid living
When we met, both our lives were upended by dissolving first marriages. People drift apart and grow in different manners. For both of us, we stayed unhappy for the sake of the kids, but eventually the realization hit us both that it was not doing any good. Our friendship let us share our experiences, and when the divorces came, we continued to grow closer. Best friends turning into great loves. We thought alike, though with original perspectives. Our first house, a little quarter acre lot in the city, was an oasis of nature. Old-growth maple trees cast across a charming backyard shade and vegetable garden. Our projects started here, as we learned from each other the ways we wanted to grow as a family. Off grid living was a conversation we started later, but the early inroads made through urban homesteading laid the foundation.

That little urban farm taught us quite a few lessons that we carried through to today. Our first was the gradual understanding of the uniqueness our property, how the soil and shade worked to produce our food. For off grid living, the idea is to increase our yields and contribute a larger portion of our production for the table. We don't plan on completely cutting off the allure of our local grocery store, but by putting away more of our own efforts in the freezer and pantry. We also now have our energy to consider. The solar panels do a spot on job of filling the batteries and running the house when the sun is shining, but this being New Hampshire, overcast days and three-day snow storms can throw wrench in the mix. Not a big one, but more like a little pocket-sized socket variety. Not only are the kids learning to be mindful of leaving lights off when not being used, but we are as well.

off grid livingOur last harvest in the urban garden was a crop of purple potatoes. The day before the house closing I was out in the garden, forking up the spuds to bring to the new homestead for curing. From these, we treated the kids and their friends to fresh potato chips, frying the slivers in canola oil and salt. It was our first time trying this, and we learned that second fry after they had dried from the first was the secret to getting a really crispy chip.

We will do this again and now we must once again learn how the soil will provide us quality results. The plan is to put together another batch of Mel's Mix, the square foot gardening composition that worked so well for us in the past. With a full sun layout, we expect our yields to be epic.

Homestead Living Off the Grid

homestead living off the grid
Our first garden project on the new property was to put in a raised planting bed for garlic. This was then encompassed with a five-foot deer and predator fence, as the space also doubles as our winter chicken run. We moved in late August, so the garlic was in the ground before first frost. With the perimeter laid out, we spent time this winter planning our next steps in the spring. The garden spreads lengthwise to the south, lying just beneath our solar panels. Towards the back we will put in climbing crops such as peas, beans and tomatoes, with herbs stretching out at the far south end by the gate. Homestead living off the grid isn't a made a more difficult task where the garden is concerned, but with an increase of produce, we have to be even more hands on. Losing a plant to disease or pests means losing that anticipated food for the table.

In the middle of the garden, peppers and summer squashes will go in, replaced by colder-weather crops like acorn and butternut squash, potatoes and pumpkins. These have great shelf-life and if left undisturbed on the counter will last a good stretch into winter. Wendie's favorites, carrots, will have there own raised bed as will the leafy greens planned for early May. All this time, the chickens will be transplanted to their own homestead living off grid without a heat lamp and water warmer. Their summer quarters are a smaller run and coop, but as free ranging is the norm for warm weather, they will be just fine.

Cheap Off Grid Homes

Our early excursions to check out cheap off grid homes with our real estate agent proved to be fruitless. Though we liked her and she did try to accommodate us, homestead properties simply weren't her forte. In fact, we started looking at other properties with other agents to open our possibilities, but none of them seemed to understand. If we were to do it again, we agree would would find an agency that specialized in off grid living, at the least farm properties.

cheap off grid homes

Some of the cheap off grid homes we looked at were deceptively described and definitely projects in their own rights. One 18th century farmhouse we looked at had experienced a fire in the 1970s, and upon inspection the roof beams were charred like an old log after an all-night kegger. Of course there are plenty of old house issues that buyers discover in our part of the country, but this was a little extreme. They were charcoal, pitch black at least an inch into the wood. Though still strong, they hinted at more problems with the bones of the house. Another property seemed promising, and matched what we described for our real estate agent we were looking for- at least two acres, wood heat, four bedrooms and space for a wood shop and garden.

cheap off grid homesThe house she showed us did have those elements, but the land was swath only 40 yards wide, going straight back through a swamp. The bedrooms were scattered with no sense of organization, connected by a make-shift butler's hallways that wrapped around the main part of the house to end over the garage. The field stone chimney looked amazing, though something had shaken the foundation so badly there was a 2 inch gap all the way around climbing through the actual roof. Lastly, there was only a one-car-deep driveway, it opened right onto the highway.

That was our last house-tour for a while. Two years later, Wendie was having a conversation with our mailman who casually mentioned he was retiring and selling his house. Ever inquisitive, Wendie asked for more details and four months later the moving truck pulled up the drive. We had abandoned the idea of scurrying between cheap off grid homes that were poorly taken care of and decided to buy on honesty and a handshake. This is our forever homestead, and when we pass along, it will be for the kids.

Homestead Living Skills

homestead living skills
Our strength as a family comes from a willingness to work hard and to be open to new ideas. So much of ourselves is invested in how we live, that learning new homestead skills almost seems to be a part of our daily routine. With the garden, we will add two beehives to the mix come spring. Goats are still an open conversation, though the decision wavers from yes to no depending on how we approach the topic. On one hand, they are cute as the dickens, but on the other, what will we do with them? Harvesting for meat is out of the question, and in order to raise them for milk we must breed them. The jury remains out.

As a married couple, we have grown closer. We both work from home and have learned that quiet, personal space is just as important as spending time side by side as we read and write. The kids are thriving, both at school and as young, promising tweens and teenagers. Our chickens are healthy and lively, the eggs starting to come in again after such long winter nights and even with the addition of Bruce, our Rooster, our neighbors are still happy to see us when we go visiting. Our homestead is slowly growing to include friends, laughter, healthy living and a personality of its own, incorporating the wholeness of our family with the land. We haven't carved anything out to make it ours, but rather have voluntarily become part of something much bigger than just ourselves.

We love sharing our journey with you, and would love to hear your perspective on off grid living as a family, as well as any tales you might wish to share about homestead living skills and your own experiences with off-grid homes. Please add to the conversation by using the comments below.