What kind of farm do you have? Is yours an Urban Homestead with a terrace garden, growing in pots? Maybe some herbs on the windowsill? Do you primarily shop at the farmer’s markets to get freshly grown farm produce? Do you live on a Large Home Farm with space for dairy or beef cattle, grain crops, a full orchard or some other income crop?
Or is your homestead a Garden Farm? Do you live in the suburbs and raise (or aspire to raise) herbs, vegetables, and fruits in your own garden? Does your landscape include a couple of dwarf fruit trees? Some beehives? Perhaps you’re one in the growing movement of “City Chicken” backyard poultry growers, raising a handful of eggs on a small suburban plot. This is the way we started out. We actually lived in semi-rural suburbia (if there is such a thing!) We lived on a state route that wound its way along the Maumee River, only five minutes from the main business area of our small suburban town outside of Toledo. We had a 1.25 acre plot that sloped noticeably down from the walkout basement at the rear of the house to a picturesque creek (a.k.a. drainage ditch with lush foliage) at the bottom of the hill, beyond our post and rail fence.
This is the creek (a.k.a. drainage ditch) at the bottom of the hill in our backyard. It was really lovely with all the foliage and flowers!
When we moved there eight years ago, there were remains of a vegetable garden, a defunct raspberry patch that produced exactly one raspberry before it finally gave up the ghost, half a dozen or more black walnut trees and a small orchard containing 3-4 full sized apple trees, a peach tree, and a pie cherry tree. The previous homeowner had loved herb gardening, whereas I knew (and cared) nothing about it. I felt the landscape was significantly lacking floral beauty, and invested the next five years in introducing a wild profusion of pinks, blues, purples and yellows – along with some lovely suburban bushes – all around the place. And after looking at the leftover garden plot that consisted of very heavy clay soil, promptly sowed the vegetable garden to grass. The place blossomed while we lived there, in some respects, and faltered in others. The orchard was in terrible need of renovation. The peach died at the end of the first summer and the apples were obviously long overdue for pruning to open them up to sunlight. But I didn’t know that at the time. I wrote them off as a poor choice in landscaping, because at this time self-sufficiency in any respect wasn’t on my radar screen.
That all changed the winter we lived at Chub Lake. We had decided it was time to move away from our hometown. We had always had a bit of wanderlust and realized that neither we nor our children were getting any younger, and if we ever wanted to make a change, it was “now-or-never”. So having paid off our home mortgage, we were free to rent a cabin on a lake in Northern Michigan for the winter. We only intended to try out the weather, really. We thought we’d enjoy cold, snowy winters, and wanted to make sure it was really so before permanently selling out and moving away.
Though it is, altogether, a story for another time, the winter was wonderful. It was refreshing, rejuvenating … in the rental we had no home maintenance cares at all (which had figured prominently in our lives as homeowners living in a fixer-upper. It also left us with plenty of time to explore and enjoy not only the great out of doors, but the local library as well. Granted, I have been a library hound most of my life, but my interests up to this point had mostly been home decorating and flower gardening. I was avid. Nothing could excite me like the prospect of another room to paint and decorate, or another sweet, flowery garden spot, and nothing could satisfy me like a project I’d just finished.
But interestingly, in this out-of-the-way backwoods town, the library had very little in the way of decorating books, and not as much as I would have liked in the landscape-gardening books, so I meandered just a little ways over on the shelves. I found myself thumbing through the pages of Jeff Ball’s “Self-Sufficient Suburban Gardener,” which for your who are unfamiliar with this stellar introduction to homesteading small-scale, contains much encouragement toward growing not only fruits and vegetables, but small livestock such as honeybees, poultry, and even fish if you have the room and inclination. Then I stumbled on a couple books about keeping chickens, including “City Chickens.” As I read, somewhere inside me this dim little light grew brighter and brighter. My eyes grew wider and wider. And my heart started beating a little faster. Soon I was devouring everything I could about self-sufficiency, homesteading, and gardening.
By the time we returned to Ohio I was on fire and excited about the starting point we already had … an orchard, an old, neglected herb garden that would serve as a fine small vegetable plot, and a yard large enough (not to mention appropriate zoning) to raise a few chickens in a chicken tractor.
This is the chicken tractor the kids and I built, with our first ever batch of chicks inside once they finally got big and hearty enough. We loved this project!
We returned home the last of March and had one month before a planned month-long trip out west in our beater of a motorcoach. We would be “road schooling” that month … learning on the go (homeschooling is flexible enough to allow for some pretty amazing learning experiences). But I had decided to raise chickens with the kids for an agricultural/zoological project once we returned home at the end of May. We would also look at finding alternate sources of water and some solar experiments – all fun stuff that was also an extension of what I had been learning myself over the winter.
On our return home we spaded the herb garden and planted it to vegetables, and built a chicken tractor for the variety of Rocks (Plymouth, Silver-Penciled, and Partridge Rocks) we had ordered from McMurray Hatcheries. I found a source of unpasteurized milk on cowshare, a farmer who raised grass-fed beef and pastured poultry for our home consumption and an excellent farmer’s market for fresh produce we wouldn’t raise. I sprayed the orchard with sulfur spray for scab and something organic I can’t remember for the codling moths on the fruit trees, and we enjoyed an amazing month and a half of homesteading right in suburbia.