My Family Married Soil, Wind, and Wood.

Where to begin?

If you’ve never been married, it is a lifelong commitment. It involves sacrifice, selfless service, and then needing to adapt to an ever-changing life.

This commitment is what is required when you move out in the country.

I married my bride 14 years ago this September. After seven years, we finally bought a house. It was a foreclosure, and six months after we bought it, my wife said she couldn’t wait to move into the country. Needless to say, I was not happy. In my head, after we bought our house in town, that was it. I would die there.

It was a Cape Cod around 2000 square-foot and had a giant maple tree in the backyard that kept our yard 10° cooler than anywhere else in town. The year we sold the house was the year we finished all of our remodeling. I was so happy that I thought I could finally take a break and just enjoy what we had created, but this was not to be.

My wife found a farmhouse built in 1900 on a little less than 3 acres of land. One acre wooded, and the rest was an open field. There is a single stall garage and a massive pole barn. There was even a wood boiler, propane, and a heat pump to keep us warm. There was even central air, a luxury we never had.

Being a math guy, I predicted it would cost us less than $500 an extra month to live there. I was happy my wife got to get what she always wanted and wouldn’t cost me an arm and a leg. I also liked burning wood, having acre woods, and wide-open spaces to start a farm. All for less than $500…

We moved in during the winter. All I had was a snow shovel and a very long driveway. Luckily we had a mild winter, and I only had to pay a plow truck once to clear the icy, snowy driveway.

There is another problem, I don’t have any wood for the wood boiler, and January is not the time to find more firewood. Most people are out, and those who cut would transition to plowing or another means of income. I did my managed to scrounge up some, but there is a huge learning curve, and it turns out that I needed about $1200 and firewood a year to heat the home through Michigan winter.

In case you are good with math, that’s an extra hundred dollars a month that I did not calculate.

Then came spring or nearly spring. My wife got the plant bug again. My wife loves plants, and I mean loves. Our kitchen ends up looking like a greenhouse. There is no countertop space, and she can’t wait to put them in the ground. Because in early spring, Michigan has sudden frosts. It can be really hard on new plants and kill whatever you’re trying to grow before they have a chance to establish themselves.

Solution: hoop houses.

We bought two hoop houses for $500 and some hardware for them for another couple hundred. My wife decided we needed to have raised beds inside hoop houses, so the cost of lumber and soil and compost.

Due to the pandemic, I had the foresight to see that the economy would slow down. We bought everything all at once—dirt, compost, seeds, hand tools, fencing, and a host of other things.

This was thousands of dollars.

My wife started putting in six hours a day, seven days a week, to get everything established as quickly as possible. We built a compost bin, five raised beds, three traditional garden plots, and three raised beds in hoop houses. We also did a drip irrigation system and had to run a ton of hose.

Then there was the windstorm.

I took a $700 loss when the wind through the hoop houses a hundred feet north of where they started in mangled them together.

Then there was the mowing. I had a push mower and acres of grass. It took 8 to 12 hours to mow the lawn. Now I had a new problem: what piece of equipment would do the best for all the different work we needed on the property?

There’s a tractor. You can get a plow for a tractor and a mower. Probably the tractor, though, as I could really use it in the woods. I never use the tractor, and it seemed like a big slow piece of equipment that wouldn’t fit in a lot of our hard-to-reach places.

There’s a lawn tractor. Lawn tractors are faster, they can plow, you can get little trailers for them, and it would fit in the woods. The problem was I didn’t think it would have enough balls to do what I wanted to do.

I have the idea to get a zero turn mower and walk behind a snowblower. Of course, this wouldn’t pull anything. It would still be using wheelbarrows the hall all the dirt compost sticks branches I mean everything by hand.

The last option I saw was an ATV. Their powerful, could fit in smaller places, have a plow attachment, pull trailers, and pull a tow-behind mower.

I choose the last option. I bought a Kawasaki brute force 750 with the snowplow. Then I purchased a tow-behind mower. The cost of that equipment?

About $18,000.

The positive thing is I can mow my entire property in about two hours. We’ll have to wait till winter for me to say how well it plows snow. But I have to say it kicks some serious but when a call comes to hauling wood, mowing blazing trails, and making life so much easier on the farm.

Another weird thing I discovered, I have a private electric pole. I found this out because the outside light to the property doesn’t work. I called the utility company told him to fix it. They told me to get a boom and troubleshoot and fix it myself.

No. No, I will not do that while I have so many other things on my plate. The cost of that is undetermined.

Let’s talk about the wind.

My property is surrounded by a field and a dairy farm. All winter long, I had a strong Western wind blowing across the property and making most outside tests miserable. The solution for this is simple, plant evergreen trees. I have the road and a northern wind on the north side of my property, so I need to plant evergreen trees and shrubs there. The eastern side of my property also needs a windbreak because I get a cool breeze from that direction in the spring. This places a strain on the new growth. On the south side, we are going to do evergreen bushes. I love you, and I wouldn’t change it for the world. The evergreen bushes should provide protection for the garden, but not block the scenery.

And then there are the woods…

Right before the woods are three massive beautiful trees. Because there’s so much older than the trees in the woods, they provide too much shade and have changed how those trees have grown. They almost grow at right angles.

To make the woods fruitful, I left the cut down those three trees. That’ll have to cut down, cut up, split, and pull stumps on an acre woods. Why do you ask?

Remember the windbreak?

Those evergreen trees won’t grow if they get too much shade.

This begs the question, how my get a pull although stumps out?

Looks like I’m getting a tractor. I will probably need one with a bucket and a backhoe. If you’ve never pulled the stump, it screws up the entire ground—just a big nasty mess. You have to flatten out, so the land is workable again; otherwise, hundreds of craters will.

The positive thing is that I won’t have to buy firewood for years. The negative thing is it can be a ton of labor.

But just like marriage, farming is a long-term game. So after the woods are cleared, and evergreen trees and shrubs are planted, I will plant fruit and nut trees.

I’m looking at dwarf trees because they produce fruit and nuts earlier. They are easier to harvest because they’re shorter, and I’ll space them to create tons of permaculture food plots.

This has been my biggest take away from my first year:

buying a property in the country is just like getting married. You have to love and cultivate the relationship. You give to the soil, and the earth provides to you. You can do things that hurt the relationship. You can do things that improve the relationship, but you can never ignore it.

If you do, weeds, thorns, and brambles will grow where shade, vegetables, and fruit are supposed to be.

Yes, the money I am spending to get the property set up is more than I predicted. Yes, nearly all of my free time is spent working on the land.

But you know what?

I spend most of my free time in the sun, working with my hands, and building a future.

Just like my marriage, the early years will be expensive and rough, but that’s temporary.

Once you know how to live with something, you know how to work with it instead of trying to bend it to your will. You learn how to give and receive. The best part is there is nothing like eating a home cooked meal that came from your soil.

Raising a Goose To Lay Golden Eggs

To understand my philosophy on raising children, you must be familiar with Aesop’s Fable, “The Goose That Laid the Golden Eggs.”

The story is so old that there are many versions, my favorite is done by Samuel Croxall. A man owns a goose that lays a golden egg daily. He tells the goose to lay two eggs a day, the goose tells him to pound sand, and the owner kills the goose.

We can all be like the goose, let me explain:

Babies are amazing creatures, they are wild, unbalanced. They can sleep anywhere. Their laugh will bring a smile to your face, and their tears will convince you to do anything to make it stop.

As our babies are growing, we do everything for them. It can be exhausting and frustrating.

I will never forget the day I wanted to clean the house before my wife came home. I would clean the room and close the door; my two children would open the door and play in the room.

I was the goose, lay shiny golden eggs of cleanliness, food, clean diapers, and rock-a-byes.

My wife was really THE GOOSE because she gave those babies breast milk.

The family lives together as geese (parents) and owners (children) for years; until that day, the child tries to help momma and daddy.

Here is were we geese can mess it up. We parents are busy and want to have everything done now so we can move on or finally take a break. The other issue is our children kinda suck at doing everything.

There will come a point where you want your kids to do things for themselves like a healthy functioning adult. To raise an adult, you cannot raise a child.

I see many children in the adult world today, and they cannot lay golden eggs.

If we want to be honest, they can’t lay a silver or bronze egg.

The other issue is they kinda suck at doing everything.

Here is how we are raising children to be geese that lay golden eggs…

To be a goose, you first have to be a gosling and make it to adulthood. On the way to adulthood, you have to be taught how to be an adult goose. This happens when the parent walks them through how to do everything in life, from eating to personal hygiene and making a nest.

I am walking each of my children through as many things as I can before they are adults. I simply guide them on how to do certain things, what was missed, and how to fix it.

The marker for completion also slides, my 6 year old knew that when he made his bed, it would be to the standards of a 6 year old and my 10 year old for a 10 year old.

The children will become baby geese and produce sucky eggs, then bronze, silver, and finally gold.

Getting better quality eggs will take time, a lot of YOUR time. Here are some suggestions on how I have done this well over the years.

*Note my oldest child is 10 so I can only speak to that, not tweens or teenagers.

1. Mentally prepare yourself for the long haul.

Just accept that you will be there 4 to 10 times as long as it would usually take if the child is doing it by themselves and 2 to 3 times as long if you are working as a team.

2. Do not be a perfectionist.

Whatever the child is doing, it will not look like you did it. That is okay, you should be proud of what they did and watch them get better and better. Imagine being little and trying to help mom or dad. After putting in your reasonable effort, you heard, “Not good enough.”

Awful right?

3. Encourage your child’s current work and show them a brighter future.

If your 5 year old put his blanket in the right direction and has the pillow on the right end. I consider that a win. We show off his significant accomplishment to his mom because he did it all by himself.

Now, my 8 year old put the blanket on wrong and had a pile of stuff on the bed. I made my son redo it and showed him what was expected.

This is the same child, 3 years later.

The thing is, though, my eldest daughter doesn’t need to be told much. For her, at about 9, she just “got it.” She would clean up dog and cat poop while rarely complaining, and she will wash the dishes with the same poor accuracy night after night as a part of her routine. I correct her dishes as a part of my routine.

We always talk about how things will be easier and more natural.

4. Bring a book.

For tasks that the child can do on their own, but won’t… bring a book or something else. Tell them their responsibility, and you read your book. Glance up and check on them, then keep reading.

I have written newsletters, budgeted our finances, read the newspaper, and written articles while guiding the child through their chore.

The cool part was the child was on task for longer, and the job got done quicker.

Once your children are laying golden eggs, love and encourage them on their excellent work. Do not always be trying to get more out of them.

If you keep pushing your children will crumble and fail. It will be your fault for pushing too hard.

You will have cultivated, grown, and nurtured a child into someone who can help themselves and then wreck them in a moment because you were treating them like an adult.

When you focus on the progress more than the results, your children will focus on getting better and better.

Let's Get Started

It’s the beginning of February.  A warm spell has brought temperatures in the 40’s, and it’s raining.  Even though here in southern Michigan, it feels as if we were cheated out of our average snow-filled winter, spring will be here soon.  Rainy weather and warms days are sure to spike that urge in gardeners everywhere to start getting their hands dirty.  For those who are new to the hobby, the task of planning and starting your garden can be overwhelming and daunting.  What do I grow?  How do I grow it?  Where will I put it?  A lot of the guesswork can be taken care of with some thoughtful planning.  It’s a learning process but a very rewarding one.  So slow down and try to take it one season at a time.

Start small, start simple

You’re new at this.  Don’t overwhelm yourself with too many plants demanding your attention.  You’re creating new life, each of which has similar basic needs, but are also a little different in their own way.  Start small.   Instead of stressing yourself out trying to figure out all the individual needs of a bunch of various plants, keep it small and straightforward.  Maybe try an herb garden for your first season.  Then the next year, consider adding some low-maintenance leafy greens.  After that, give it a go at some tomatoes.  You get the point.

Work with your environment, not against it

There are things you must take into consideration before deciding what to grow.  How much light do you have?  What is your soil like?  How much space do you have available? Ideally, you should have a good idea of where the direct sun is during the SUMMER.  Sometimes people don’t realize that the line of direct sunlight is a little different in mid-summer than it is during the planning phase.  Yes, most sun will still be south facing, but you might find that you have more spots with the direct sun than you initially thought once summer comes and the sun is higher.  Are deer an issue in your area?  Look for deer-resistant plants for your landscape.  If you’re limited on good soil, consider pot-friendly patio plants or raised beds that can be quickly filled with good soil.  Do not try to fight nature.  You will lose and end up frustrated. All these things bring me to my next point.

Grow what you CAN, not what you WANT

My first try at something other than herbs or leafy greens was a somber one.  I wanted to grow tomatoes so bad, that despite the “full sun” indication, I thought the part sun would suffice.  Couldn’t be further from the truth. We had a large maple tree in our small backyard.  I’ve never had such a love/hate relationship with a living being.  The shade it provided kept our house remarkably cool, and one year we tapped it. It produced some excellent maple syrup (a process worth going over in a future article).  However, it was this same tree that caused the demise of my sad tomato plants.  I tried to pay attention to whether the dirt got dried out, and that was about it.  I think we got a yield of about six small Roma tomatoes out of four plants.  See how I also didn’t work with my environment there?  So yeah, it grew, but it was far from thriving and not exactly worth the effort.  The point is to have realistic expectations for your growing conditions. Don’t spend months trying to get a watermelon when you only have the space or sun for kale.  You will end up annoyed and irritated in the end.  Try again next year and take this as a lesson learned. 

When space is limited, grow what you use most

Fast-forward a couple of years to my second try at tomatoes.  I planted them in a less ideal location as it was much smaller and less visually appealing but provided us with 8+ hours of full sun.  We had an area with full sun, albeit a small one. Many vegetables require full sun, and I figured I’ll be damned if I couldn’t have my cake and eat it too.  Plants need space, though.  You cannot treat your garden like your catch-all drawer; an area that seems suitable for everything until it’s bursting at the seams.  Plants need space for roots, proper airflow, room to grow, and to prevent shading other plants.  Think about what you eat most, figure out the needs of said plants, and work with that. Depending on the space requirements, you may decide to omit certain space-suckers.  Produce like melons and squash require a lot of room, whereas carrots require little spacing.

Another thing you can do is elevate to alleviate.  With some creativity, you can grow many things vertically to maximize your yield.  Plant stands, hanging options, and vining plants trained to go up can make the most use of your space. 

There is no shame in buying plants already started

Germinating seeds and tending to delicate seedlings can be the most challenging part of the growing process.  Yes, we all want 100% organically grown seedlings that we fertilized with our own free-range chicken poop. We dream that our precious and always obedient cherubs happily tend to our wholesome gardens. However, for us normal people, that’s just not practical.  For whatever reason, I felt like I was cheating a bit by buying already started plants.  Again, doing everything at once can be overwhelming.  By buying already started seeds, you are likely to find healthy plants, save yourself time, and take out the guesswork or research that goes into starting seeds.  Depending on where you live, a lot of plants require being started indoors to ensure that they are large enough by harvest time.  Then there’s knowing when to start them. Controlling the soil temperature with a heating mat or system can be useful here (we’ll show you how to make your own later).  You must also ensure the soil stays moist during germination. Then you have to find a suitable location.  Some plants are more cold-hardy and can quickly be started outdoors, but many won’t germinate without warmer soil conditions.  Then there is the process of hardening them off (this means gradually getting the plants acclimated to the outdoor environment).  Seedlings started indoors aren’t used to wind, sun, and the temperature fluctuations that the outdoors bring.  If you don’t think you’re ready to tackle all of that, then buying already started plants might be best for you. 

There is a lot to learn, and you will continue to learn something new every year.  Don’t be overwhelmed by it all.  Just get started.  Practice patience, go easy on yourself, and enjoy the rewards of your hard-work.