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Homestead Reflections April 2019 My Homestead Journey Part 2

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2019 April Issue Newsletter

By Sharon Gensler

Last month I started my story about how I became a homesteader.  (Read Part 1 here.)  I wrote about growing up on a small family farm, fleeing the country for a big city job, only to be drawn back to the land by my heart.   I shared my pre-homestead history, up to obtaining this land and the first few beginning steps at Wild Browse Farm. 

This process of reflection has been poignant and enlightening.  Reliving those years of youth, boundless energy and unlimited horizons has been exhausting and exhilarating, while bringing forth both smiles and tears.  I hope you find these memories at least entertaining, if not informative.

During this time of soil creation at the future Wild Browse, I was renting a small place in Wendell, which was located a couple miles away. Even at the rental, I had to start from scratch making a garden in the abandoned pasture, longing for a place to finally put down deep roots.  Having a roof over my head and fresh veggies to eat while still commuting to NESFI (New England Small Farm Institute) allowed for at least some part-time homestead work.  However, with trees cut and orchard and garden prep started, it was time to think about building a place to live.

GK, my partner at the time, had also picked out her 6 acres from the large parcel. As we were at a point in our relationship that we disagreed more than we agreed, we decided to build separate dwellings.  Hers to be larger and more conventional while my ideal home was small and simple, a place without electricity or a flush toilet. 

Sharon's small starter cabinWe picked out our separate building sites and decided to build her larger house first, so that we would have a place to live while we built mine later.  She wanted a full basement, which necessitated hiring an excavator and a concrete contractor; otherwise we did the bulk of the construction ourselves.  It was a busy summer, sawing, hammering, pulling electric wires and installing plumbing pipes.  Having been hired to do electrical work on several other houses in the valley brought me into contact with other construction folks who occasionally volunteered to lend a hand.  My plumbing instructor at the Women in Construction program designed and supervised the plumbing system and its installation, while another friend brought his crew for a day and shingled the entire roof.  In addition, friends would stop by and swing a hammer for a few hours or show up to help raise a wall. To save rent money, we moved in just before the snow arrived even though the interior wasn’t finished.  Living with sheetrock dust and paint fumes wasn’t great, but not renting was a huge savings. 

Overall, it was a fun summer, though at times stressful and physically exhausting.  Building the house, continuing to work on my garden and orchard, while still taking on major electrical jobs to keep some income flowing, was quite taxing.  By Spring we realized that our living together and our relationship had reached its limits.  I bought a used 14-foot travel trailer and moved it onto my section of land. It was a “tiny-house”, but cozy enough for me, and my cat. 

Perennials transferred to their new resting place in WendellNow, I was truly living on my land!  What an amazing feeling, the dream was taking on substance and reality.  In addition, my friend Janet, who had bought the original land, lived right next door. She graciously shared her well and outhouse.  I was able to live without electricity and indoor plumbing, save rent money, stroll down the hill to the garden, take walks in the deep woods and really experience the beginnings of my homesteading life.  During the summer, a dip in a friend’s pond was refreshing and kept my body clean, while showers had to be scrounged from friends and neighbors for a few years.

After the first winter living in a tin can, I decided I needed some home improvements.  The idea of a mudroom to keep snow and mud out of the tiny space morphed into a small room attached to the trailer where I could have a wood stove and a rocking chair.  So, I built a 12’x14’ cabin that snugged up to the trailer door allowing me to continue using the trailer for a kitchen.  Pru, a Wendell friend, volunteered to help build the cabin and we finished it as the next winter approached.  Several years later, after starting a relationship, she and I (plus her large lab and my small cat) lived in this space for 4 years while we built our larger, but still small, house.  We had pulleys that would hoist the rockers up to the ceiling so that we could pull out the futon-bed every night!  Ah, youth and young love makes everything easier!

That summer I was able to begin planting in the garden even though a truly rich, deep humus soil would take many years to evolve.  To plant in what is now called a “lasagna garden”, the first year after layering needs to be different than planting in an already existing garden soil.  The decomposing layers of wood chips and manure create heat as they compost, which could damage seeds or young plant roots.  So, care must be taken to give them a buffer until the composting action cools down a bit.

To plant transplants, I pushed back the layered wood chips and manure making a hole, then filled it with well-composted soil before placing the tender plant within.  The same process can be used for direct seeding by making a shallow trench and filling it with mature compost and soil. I was thrilled by how well these permaculture techniques worked and still use them to start new growing areas.  The garden was very productive and I was able to can and dehydrate many vegetables and herbs.

 A well-established asparagus bed will produce for many many years.Besides planting fruit trees, starting an asparagus bed was a top priority that first year. I decided to start my asparagus bed by planting asparagus seeds, rather than following the common practice of starting with asparagus roots.  Besides being much cheaper, seeds were advertised to have a longer lifespan, to which I can now attest.  Those Martha Washington’s are still going strong 38 years later and they are so very tasty.  The key to having perennial vegetables is to keep them weeded and to feed them regularly by adding an inch or two of compost and woodchip mulch every autumn, thus keeping their roots undisturbed while feeding the soil.

While working at NESFI, I was able to start many perennial flowers and herbs from seed.  I moved them to the garden at my rental and finally they were brought to their new home in the center of the new circular garden.  The back of my pickup was loaded with lupine, delphinium, Siberian iris, Sweet Williams, Gloriosa Daisies, Stocks, Gladiolas, Peppermint, Lemon Balm, Motherwort and even Dandelions and Nettles!  Many of these same plants and/or their offspring still thrive here at the farm. Many others have been gifted to friends and family and live elsewhere.  It felt so good to know that not only did I have a place to sink my roots, but that all of these plants did too.

Speaking of roots today is a root day according to my astrological planting calendar.  So, I better be off to the hoop house to seed some carrots, which will be such a sweet, delicious, crunchy, Spring treat. So, I guess I’ll continue this saga next month. Enjoy your spring planting and I hope we will soon be seeing snowdrops, crocus and daffodils.

For upcoming workshops on homesteading skills, check out Natural Beekeeping with Angela Roell in Springfield, MA on April 28, 2019, Growing Specialty Mushrooms at Home with Willie Crosby in Montague on May 11, 2019, and Making Soft Cheeses with Cliff Hatch in Gill on May 18, 2019.

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