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As we coast into our third year here at the Raspberry Cabin, I find myself amidst piles of seed catalogs, spreadsheets, and old seed packets. I’ve accumulated ten years worth of experimental varieties of every shape, color, size, and flavor. If it can grow this far north, I’ve probably tried it by now. As I sift through my seeds I am reminded of my past successes, my many failures, and my hopes for the future.
Artichoke seeds make me sigh – I tried them two years ago and as soon as I planted them out mid-July we dipped into the 40’s and every plant wilted away to nothing. Green Arrow shelling peas give me a warm feeling, just imagining the fresh, green flavor of summer and sunshine when I bite into a warm pod straight off the vine. Cauliflower seeds make me purse my lips in determination. One of these years I WILL grow a beautiful head of cauliflower. The Habanero packets get my mouth watering, thinking of pineapple-habanero sauce poured thickly over grilled chicken legs.
Do you go through your seed collection in January and get these feelings too?
The onion seeds are first on the spreadsheet. This will be my third year growing from seed, and I’m still learning how to get the biggest, most flavorful onions this way. Sets are easy – you just stick them in the ground and wait a while. Boom! Onions. But seeds? Seeds you have to plant, thin, replant, trim, replant, support, then finally plant out. This year I am only doing two seed varieties of onion, and I’ll continue to get two set varieties as well. I’m also introducing a new kid on the block – shallots. After watching some youtubers grow them out, I’m confident I can do it too. I’ve never bought shallots because they’re so expensive in the stores, but at $2 for a thick packet of seed I figured it’s worth a shot. If I don’t like them, I can either sell them or give them to the chickens. Chickens LOVE onions. Have you tried shallots?
After the onions come some herbs, peppers, and flowers. Then the tomatoes, melons, and squash. I’m sticking with a few oldies-but-goodies, and branching out even more. I love trying new things, don’t you? When I go to the supermarket, there are three tomatoes to choose from: cherry, roma, or slicing. They’re all red. They all have the same lackluster, watery taste. When I go into my garden, I have all different sizes, shapes, colors, and flavors to choose from. If I want a smoky, robust flavor I pick a Paul Robeson. If I want a super sweet snack, I pick a rainbow of cherry tomato varieties. If I’m making sauce, I have several paste types in white, yellow, orange, and red so my sauces aren’t always the typical red you find in the store. Fresh salsa? I toss in whatever is prettiest – purples, reds, golds… and I use colored peppers to match. It’s a fiesta for my eyes as well as my mouth.
I’m stoked about the garden this year. Last year I harvested so much I didn’t even have time to post about it on my blog. I was able to fill the freezer with around 35 pounds of diced peppers, 20 pounds of shredded zucchini, and 10 pounds of diced onions. I canned up dozens of jars of diced tomatoes, sauce, pickles of every type, and carrots. Last year was a bumper year for carrots. I had THOUSANDS. Every year I struggle to get anything larger than my pinky finger from the carrots, so I decided it was time to empty my seed stock. I planted several varieties in several 20′ rows. Of course, since I wasn’t expecting anything from all that old seed, every damn one went gangbusters on me. I pulled so many I ended up feeding a majority of them to the chickens and deer this winter. I’ve a sneaking suspicion the carrots all over the yard and orchard are the reason we have so many new rabbit tracks this year. Thankfully they haven’t discovered the garden yet. We might be having some bunny stew if I notice any tracks in there.
I plan to have a lot more flowers this year. Last year I skipped sunflowers. This year I want sunflowers, nasturtiums, sweet peas, asters, and marigolds everywhere! I’ll also be finishing up the corner raised bed, getting it filled, and planting some perennials like hardy kiwi, morning glory, and daisies in it. I’ll finish digging out the small pond by hand, get it lined, build up the edges, and stock it with some experimental fish. If I can get them to survive through the winter, I might try my hand at some koi. I ordered some asparagus roots since my experiment with asparagus seed only yielded three stalks to speak of. They’ll get their own raised bed, too, which will probably receive a good chunk of chicken manure since they’re heavy feeders.
I really wanted to tone it down with my tomatoes since 100 plants were a lot to tend, but these damn seed catalogs got me all drooly and craving new flavors. I’m going to really try to reel it back to around 50 plants. Cross your fingers for me, okay? Peppers, though… oh, peppers! I had over 200 pepper plants last year and that wasn’t enough to satisfy my obsession. Have I told you how much I love fresh peppers? I love them frozen, too. And fried, stewed, baked, grilled, stuffed… I’m like Bubba on Forrest Gump, except with peppers instead of shrimp.
My seed collection grows every year. I took this picture before I even broke into my new seed orders. Yep. I’m out of control when it comes to gardening! I found quite a few varieties that I didn’t want anymore. For anyone interested, I am giving them away in four groups over the next month. You can find the giveaway on my Secular Homesteaders group on facebook. Just leave a comment on that post and you’ll be entered to win the seeds shown. The first group are all nightshades – tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers. Here’s a preview of what I’ll be giving away, if you’re curious.
Four lucky winners will help me pare down my crazy seed stash. I’ll pay shipping anywhere in the US. I should mention that I have had no trouble germinating any of these seeds. Why don’t I want these varieties, you ask? Some of them require a longer growing season than I enjoy here in northern Wisconsin. Some I didn’t care for. Some I don’t have room for, despite my garden being roughly 8x the square footage of our house. And some were freebies or doubles that I wasn’t really interested in. All good seeds from great companies, and all of them kept in the dark, cool basement between seasons to keep them viable.
My next post will be more about the specific varieties I’ll be growing this year, as well as planting times and what you can expect from my stand at the farmer’s market this spring. As always, if you have any specific requests for plants, you’re welcome to leave a comment here or email me. I already have a request for fushimi, marconi, and jalapeno peppers, and I’m fulfilling some others from shoppers at the market last year. Bhut jolokia, anyone? 😉
Hope everyone had a wonderful holiday season! Happy New Year!
It’s been a while since I’ve updated my blog. We’ve had quite the whirlwind spring so far. First, I’ll let you know what’s going on with the greenhouse. The greenhouse and five acres it sits on are going for $399,000. I applied for a commercial loan through our bank, and they worked so diligently with me to get all of the paperwork filled out correctly. I spent dozens of hours poring over seed and plug catalogs, making elaborate spreadsheets, talking to dealers and the owners, and figuring out every expense we could account for. I submitted the paperwork, but it was at that point that we hit a snag. For a traditional commercial loan, they need a 20% down payment. That’s $80,000. We don’t have $80,000 laying around. So I looked into a small business loan through the SBA. They require a 10% down payment. That’s $40,000. Again… we don’t have $40,000 laying around. We spent weeks selling everything we could, but to no avail. We were only able to raise about $5000 in such a short time.
We were denied a commercial loan because we couldn’t afford the down payment. I talked to the loan officer and she reassured me that as soon as we can come up with $40,000 she would gladly allow me to reapply for consideration.
But where are we going to get $40,000?
We heard of one option that was a bit out there, but workable. We could set up a C-Corp, set up stocks for our personal business, and move moneys from my husband’s 401k over to our own stocks. It sounded too good to be true! He has enough in his 401k, though just barely. After all, we’re only 30 years old. But… as you can probably guess… there is a hitch. It would cost us $5500 to set up the C-Corp and get everything going. Then there would be another $1400 in additional expense, followed by an $1100 annual fee to keep the stocks and paperwork going.
We don’t even have the $8000 we’d need to do that. And even if we did, after discussing it in depth, neither my husband nor I are willing to risk his entire 401k, even to make our dream come true. We need another option.
Back to square one.
I don’t know when or if we’ll be able to come up with $40,000 for a down payment. I know I can turn a good profit and make a good life for our family if we get this greenhouse operation. I know I can do it. I’ve run the numbers several ways. Even after paying for start-up materials, signage, maintenance, the monthly commercial loan payments, advertising, worker wages, taxes, propane, utilities, etc… we’d still make more than what my husband currently makes in a year. And that was on the conservative side. That was only selling half of the stock I could fill the three main greenhouses with in the first year. By the second year, I’d have all 9 greenhouses on line.
But I don’t know where the initial money is going to come from.
It’s true, that old saying about the rich getting richer. Starting a business costs money. If we had just $40,000 for the down payment, I’d already be in the greenhouse getting it cleaned up, putting on new plastic, and preparing it for next spring’s sales. Heck, I might even start earlier and do poinsettias and Christmas wreaths.
What about our house? Our dream house. The one we spent a decade saving up and planning for. Well, we’d love to be able to hang onto it. We could turn it into a rental and retire up here. Or we could sell it. *sigh* I know. It makes me sad to even think about selling something we put so much work into. We looked into it. We’ve had multiple realtors out to assess the value and give us options. We even thought we could come up with the down payment by selling our house and land. The realtors popped that bubble. The sale of our house might give us a tiny profit ($8-10,000), but it wouldn’t be enough. If we could sell our house for the $40k profit, we’d probably do it in a heartbeat and begin a new dream for a new house after the greenhouse was up and running.
So here we are, floating adrift, continuing on with our lives as if the greenhouse operation isn’t going to happen. I had high hopes for a while. I am still hanging onto them in the back of my mind. That greenhouse would mean financial independence. If something were to happen to my husband, I’d still have a way to make a living. It would mean stability – no more moving to follow work opportunities, no more yanking the kids out of their schools and away from their friends. It would be doing something I love every day.
Our last hope now is to keep scrimping and saving. My husband is doing everything he can to see this greenhouse vision through, and I really hope it’s not too little too late. The greenhouse has been on the market 5 years already. Will it stay on the market another year if that’s how long it takes us to come up with the money? I don’t know. My husband has given up the job he loves here, close to home, and has re-enlisted with the company he was previously with. He will be leaving for Afghanistan, to be a contractor in a war zone, within the next few weeks.
I feel sick that he’s making such a sacrifice. He doesn’t have to, but he will. Because he wants a better life for us. He wants financial security. He wants us to have this greenhouse… and this is the only option we seem to have left.
He’s going to be gone for a year. It’s a sure bet that we’ll be able to save up for the down payment in a year of him working over there, but I worry he won’t come back. He’s been over to the Middle East twice before now. We used the money from the previous stints overseas to pay off our debts and buy land, never even thinking we’d have an opportunity like the greenhouse. I was so proud to tell people he’d never have to go back there, back to being awakened in the night by mortars, living apart from everything he knows and loves. I was so glad to have him back. And now… he’s leaving again. For us. For our future. I wish there was another way.
Well, now that I’m damn near close to tears just thinking about him leaving, how about I move onto a more cheerful subject? The garden. I’ve been working hard up until I got sick a couple days ago. It’s all planted, and I’ve been able to keep up with the weeds so far. Once I’m over this sinus infection and chest cold, I’ll get back to work out there again. It’s a big area to keep weeded. In case you don’t remember, our garden is about 7500 square feet, or 8 times the size of our house. Maybe big is an understatement.
That’s the garden so far. Everything is small because way up north we don’t have a long growing season. It’ll shoot up and amaze me, I hope. Keep checking back for updates! I’ll try to be better about it this summer. Things get pretty hectic with kids home all summer and the homestead needing all sorts of work to stay in order. Maybe my next post will show you how big the orchard is getting. We might actually get some cherries and plums this year! Yahoo!
If you are a gardener, and you’d like to share your blog, please leave a link in the comment. I’d love to see what you’re planting and hear about your experiences playing in the dirt. My garden isn’t enough to sate my addiction – I need more! If I like your blog, I might even add it to my blogroll so I can stalk it. 🙂
Today the hubby and I spent nearly four hours with face masks on and pitchforks in our hands, cleaning out the chicken coop. I kid you not, the straw and poop was mounded 2-3′ high under the roosts. Blehck! Now I see why poop hammocks are so popular. We got around twenty wheel barrows full of poopy, composting straw and sawdust from our 8’x18′ coop with 33 birds. I’d say about half of it was composted already, but hopefully this summer the rest will catch up. We piled it in a corner of the garden and wet it down thoroughly to get it roasting.
Once the coop was cleaned, I raked it all flat (dirt floor) and spread lime all over. Then I spread a new layer of straw, brought the waterers and oyster shell bin back in, and refilled the nesting boxes with new sawdust. They love their clean coop!
My husband and our older son also helped get five new fruit trees into the orchard. One of these days I’ll get out there and take stock of exactly what we have. I know we have lots of apples, two plums, seven cherries, and four pears. The cherries and pears are budding and getting flowers now. It’s great to see things coming to life! It took a few days, but we managed to get every tree mulched, pruned, and surrounded by deer-proof fencing.
You can see almost the whole orchard in that photo above. It takes up most of the south-eastern face of the hill our house sits on. At the bottom of the hill is a low, marshy spot where rainwater always collects. Someday I’d like to clear all the cottonwood and birch out of it to make a small pond. I can imagine geese grazing the hillside in the shade of fruit trees, then taking an evening swim. Ducks, too. It’s probably a good thing the feed store ran out of ducks so quickly every week this spring – I may have got a head start on our duck population otherwise. Someday…
Here is a close up of one of our newest cherry trees. See the leaves? Yay! Spring!
I also spent a few hours today cleaning up the garden area. I ripped out all of the stout sunflower stalks, then cleaned up the strawberry beds a bit. The strawberries all have a few little new leaves coming up, and the garlic is nearly 5″ tall already. Even the leeks are trying to make a comeback! I thought the remaining leeks were goners after I let the chickens loose in the garden last fall. Those birds ate every one down to the roots. But lo and behold, they’re being resurrected. Here’s a shot of the garlic. I’ve yet to fertilize and mulch it. Maybe tomorrow. The sun is already setting on today, as you can tell by all of these pictures.
And the rest of the garden… so full of promise!
Yesterday was the Spring Equinox, and this year it actually feels like spring! The snow finished melting a few days ago, and the weather has consistently been above freezing during the day. Blue skies and a shining sun are doing a lot to pick up my mood lately. Oh, spring! How I’ve missed you!
The chickens and guineas are enjoying the warmer weather. Their run is finally solidified instead of being a mud wallow. Every morning I go out and toss some scratch for them. Pretty soon their coop will be thawed enough for me to clean out a winter worth of poop and straw. Not even kidding – it’s about 3′ deep in spots. My garden is going to love all the nutrients from the litter.
And we’re getting eggs once again. Look at the beautiful little presents I find every morning! We’re getting 8-10 a day… and it’s warm enough outside that the eggs aren’t freezing and cracking within minutes of being laid. Yahoo! You’ll notice a ping pong ball next to the eggs. That is there to entice the hens to lay in the nesting boxes instead of on the floor. Seems to work, though sometimes they toss it out and kick it into the corner by the door, where they like to lay. I move it back whenever they do that. Stubborn, sassy birds.
My seedlings are doing swell. I’m finished with peppers, and have now started on some brassicas, flowers, and more herbs. Here are some picture updates on them:
This last picture isn’t really homesteading related, but it’s beautiful to me so I’m going to post it anyway. This is our butcher block island in the kitchen after I cleared it off and oiled it up. Every time I oil it, it gets darker, richer, and so much more gorgeous. I love our island, and highly suggest this material to anyone thinking of remodeling a kitchen. Oh my. I just noticed in the picture how dusty our light is. I guess when the oil soaks in I’ll be climbing up onto the island to clean the lights. These lights – they’re amazing, but a lot of maintenance.
I am spending a couple hours every few days transplanting peppers to their second homes in plastic cups. So far it’s taken me about 6 hours to transplant 147. It seems like a lot of effort to put into some silly little plants, but they appreciate it and will give me strong roots and stalks as a result. In case you missed my post about transplanting seedlings last year, here is how I do it.
First I get my cups ready. I’m doing a bit of experimenting this year since I’ve found that the clear plastic cups are even cheaper than Solo cups on sale. So I’m using up some old stock I stashed from last year, and also some new cups I bought this year. The solo cups are too wide for my use, so I cut off the top inch or so. It doesn’t have to be pretty – the plants don’t care. Cutting off the top lets me stack 18 cups per flat, 21 if I really squeeze them in. Then I cut three holes around the bottom edge of each cup for drainage. Again, nothing fancy – they just need a way to access the water in the tray during watering times.
Then I mix up sterile potting mix with peat moss and perlite. I run it under the faucet for a few seconds to moisten it, then use a big mixing spoon to stir it up evenly. When the mixture is wet enough to clump when I make a fist around it, but not so wet that water drips from my fist, then I gently scoop it into each cup, leaving the mixture loose and aerated. I don’t press it down at all at this point, but I do stick my index finger into the middle of each cup to create a planting hole for the seedling.
This year I’m transplanting as soon as the cotyledons (seed leaves) are up and spread, but last year I waited until the first set of true leaves were out. Doesn’t really make a difference when you do it, so long as you take your time and are gentle with the fragile little roots and stems. Squeeze the bottom of each cell to loosen the seed starting mix around the roots. Then ever so gently pinch the base of the tiny stem and pull each seedling out. Immediately tuck them into the hole in the transplant cup, then gently press the mix around the base of the stem.
Once all of the cups in a tray are filled, planted, and labeled clearly, they go upstairs to the grow racks I made. They’re simple structures. So easy, a caveman could make them. They’re just shelves between four supports, leveled and screwed in place. Cheap shop lights hang from screwed-in J hooks and chains. This makes them adjustable, which is necessary because the light should always be 1-2″ above the top of the plants to prevent legginess. No, you don’t need the expensive grow lights. I’ve used the cheapest bulbs I can find and had sturdy, healthy plants.
Pardon the mess. We’re in the process of finishing the loft, where the grow shelves will reside until spring planting. I can’t imagine why, but my husband doesn’t seem fond of the idea of 8′ tall grow shelves in the living room this year. Who knows? Maybe he actually wants to watch movies on his new tv in the corner. Maybe he wants to be able to walk through the living room without having to shimmy around grow shelves. Husbands… they’re so picky. 😛
Other than the peppers, the onions and herbs are doing splendidly. The onions are just about ready for their first haircut and a bit of straightening up.
This is the first year out of several that I have planted rosemary and actually had some results! I don’t know if you can see it in the top left of the second picture, but there are two tiny rosemary seedlings. I had three, but one bit the dust. I’ve started taking some of the herbs, especially the basil you see on the bottom of the bottom picture, and putting them into assorted pots for sale. They smell sooo good when I play with them! I can’t wait to have fresh basil again.
These pots shown above each have three different types of basil – Italian, cinnamon, and opal purple. I bought some plain little self-watering pots so people can grow them on a patio or in a windowsill. The plants trying to overshadow them are my indoor spider plant and goldfish plant. Can you see the little, goldfish-shaped, orange flowers on the right? The whole plant is about ready to be loaded with them. It blooms constantly. I originally got the plant from my aunt, but in my ignorance I left it outside over winter. I thought it would just come back like a perennial. Nope. Thankfully, my mom saw my mistake and took a cutting before it was too late. She propagated her own, and gave me a cutting of it when I complimented hers. It’s so neat to see a little plant trimming take off into a full grown plant in its own right. Nature is awesome.
Not much else going on on our little homestead. The snow is nearly all gone, and the ground is nearly thawed completely. Crazy what a week can do. Last week it was -23… this week it’s in the 40’s. I’m still crossing my fingers for an early spring. I’d love to get the garden planted before mid-June this year! I’m behind on my seed starting thanks to the peppers hogging the heat mats, but hopefully I’ll get back on track this week. I still have to start eggplants, broccoli, cauliflower, marigolds, a few more herbs, and some other flowers. Then in April, I’ll start the tomatoes, melons, squash, and another round of herbs.
What are you starting? How’s it going?