Posts Tagged ‘Fire Wood’

In the first installment of the Urban Homesteading in a Northern Climate series, we talked about the garden and some tactics and ideas that can lead to successful food production.  This week I want to continue that conversation by staying outside, and talk more about the other out-of-door spaces of a northern climate urban homestead.

It is easy for the garden to steal the show – they provide us with our sustenance, a place to escape to, and inspiration for songs and stories.  It is more difficult to find that same spirit in a wood pile or a garden shed, but does it make these other aspects of our homesteads any less important?  Certainly not!

Like the human body, a healthy, functioning homestead has many different parts and systems that complete the whole.  Where the gardens and orchard may be the heart and circulatory system, our houses as our protective skin, and the kitchen as our digestive tract, all homesteads – like our bodies, require the basics to sustain life.  These analogies of the body and a homestead are not perfect, but I do believe they do a decent job of illustrating the point I am trying to make.

So what are some of the other out door spaces that contribute to a healthy and vibrant homestead?  What are their roles and more importantly, since we are talking about the Urban Homestead here, how do we design them into the small spaces we have to work with?

Here are our two main compost bins.  The chickens' new home will be behind this area.

Here are our two main compost bins. The chickens’ new home will be behind this area.

Let’s begin with an important piece of any homestead, the compost pile.  If you are anything like me, the compost pile may be as important as the garden itself is.  Without a place to turn our organic wastes into useful fertilizer and soil amendments, we wouldn’t have fertile, thriving gardens.  We have our main compost pile located almost centered on our ½ acre plot.  We use a system of two plastic compost bins (along with temporary welded – wire compost cages to accommodate seasonal over flow of compostable material), which cycle, and compost organic waste in a rotation of first in, first out.  Because our homestead has been evolving over the last ten years, there are definite design flaws that we try to remedy as they are identified and as time permits.

One of these design flaws has to do with the interaction of our flock of backyard hens, and our compost area.  Our number one compost ingredient is bedding straw and chicken manure.  It would then make sense to have the chicken coop located in closer proximity to the compost area, or the other way around – but we don’t.  The coop sits about 35 feet from the composting area, which really isn’t that far, but it is far enough when you are hauling bedding straw and chicken manure to be composted, and when you have limited space to utilize.  This design flaw will hopefully be corrected this coming spring as we have plans to move the chicken coop and run right next to the composting area.

Another big advantage we will gain by moving the chickens closer to the compost area is that they will also be much closer to where we have one of our garden sheds located.  This rickety old shed acts as a garden tool storage area, and where we store all of our fresh bedding straw.  When we buy bales of straw from the farm supply store, we purchase upwards of 15 bales at a time for three reasons – we get a price break at that amount, we only drive down to the farm store 2 – 3 times a year (for bulk, raw grains for chicken feed, and straw), and because that is how many bales of straw my trailer can accommodate in one load.

Here is the rusty, old shed!  A home for garden tools, bedding straw, and probably some lucky mice!!

Here is the rusty, old shed! A home for garden tools, bedding straw, and probably some lucky mice!!

With the erratic weather patterns and the on going drought that America has been dealing with for the last few seasons, having a place to securely store an expensive input like straw is important.  While we don’t run a huge operation, knowing that we have 6 months to a years worth of straw stored in a dry place saves us money and time, and also adds a small bit of resilience to our homestead.  I’d rather not import and spend money on a product like straw, but the simple fact is that I have too for right now, so having the infrastructure to properly store such a great source of compostable carbon is vital – even if it is a rusty old shed!

Continuing on the importance of outbuildings, we have one other shed, and a detached garage that are a part of our homestead.  In the urban setting, a garage and/or sheds can help take the place of barns, machine/work shops, corn cribs, and granaries.  Once again, here at The Dead End Alley Urban Farm (the commercial arm of the Autonomy Acres blog) we have another design flaw.  This one though is not so much a flaw on the location or the structure itself, but of operator error!  I am a collector of “useful materials”, or a less sexy way of putting it, a modern day scavenger!  My habit of finding and then diving into dumpsters (or spotting cool stuff along boulevards) has yielded me vast amounts of lumber, fencing, firewood, windows, 55 gallon barrels, and many other useful, and random pieces of urban “waste”.  Because of this, our small garage, two sheds, and yard have turned into a BIG mess!

I am not ready to abandon my habit of picking up useful materials, but I do have to figure out better ways of storing the materials I collect.  Another project on the “to–do” list is to organize all the lumber and other random materials I have collected, and store them in ways that make them easy to inventory and even more easy to utilize and build with!  If this can be accomplished, I can actually turn my small garage into a workshop that can then be used for making hive bodies and other beekeeping equipment, rain barrels, compost tumblers, and other DIY projects that I have going on or want to start!

Moving away from outbuildings, but staying on the theme of utilizing the urban “waste stream”, is fire wood.  For the last two years, and periodically over the last decade,  I have been able to heat my house with wood scavenged from neighbors’ yards, storm damaged trees left on the cities’ boulevards, the county compost site, and trees cut from my own land.  In a typical Minnesota winter, that equals a lot of wood – at least two full cords of split, dried, and stacked firewood per winter season.  Now this is one place where our design is almost perfect!  Our spot for storing and chopping wood that is ready to burn is right out our back door (this same spot also doubles as an area to hang clothes out to dry in the summer!).

The Wood Pile!!!

The Wood Pile!!!

As funny as it sounds, this is one of my favorite out door spots in the winter.  There is something about heating my house with wood that helps me keep in contact with the Earth and the realities of human comfort.  I love the feel of the ax or the splitting maul in my hands as I chop wood, and I like knowing that MY physical labor not only helps to keep me a bit healthier, but also helps to keep my wife and kids warm when it is cold outside.  One improvement that could be made however, and will be once time allows (surprise, surprise!), is adding some kind of semi – permanent, roofed structure to help shelter our firewood.  Currently it is just covered with a tarp, but by having a real roof to protect it, we not only benefit from dry firewood, we also add another roof surface to collect rain water from!

Everything covered so far is really only the tip of the iceberg as far as outdoor spaces are concerned.  The possibilities are endless when it comes to designing and implementing ideas for our outdoor spaces!    This is a topic that whole books could be written about, so one blog post does not do this subject justice.  Other areas of importance that all homesteads should at least consider and implement when practical and possible are spots dedicated to catching and collecting rain water, sites for grey water systems, areas for livestock – chickens, rabbits, goats, bees, etc…, summer kitchens (cob and masonry wood fired ovens, solar ovens, and rocket stoves come to mind – oh yeah, and a place to BBQ and smoke meat), areas for drying and curing produce, out door bathroom facilities including composting toilets and solar showers, and entertainment spots like decks, porches, an area for a bonfire pit and even a bit of a lawn for playing bocce ball!

Just like everyone’s body is a bit different, every homestead is unique.  Where we live and what our interests are will play a big role in how we design and setup our outdoor spaces.  Obviously if you live in a spot like southern California or Florida (or some other equivalent warm climate), heating your house in the winter is not going to be a big priority, and if you really aren’t into keeping bees or other livestock you won’t have to work that into your design either.  But as homesteaders – whether in warm climates or cold, in the country or the city; it is our similarities that connect us, and lead to our ultimate success.  So while it is the outside land where we grow our food, raise our animals, and store building and other such materials, it is the home that brings it altogether!   And that is where we will pick up this conversation next time we talk about the Urban Homestead in a Northern Climate – The Home….  Peace & Cheers!

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I have wanted to write about homesteading in a northern climate for quite awhile, but it has taken me some time to organize my thoughts and how I wanted to present this topic.  So let’s start here –  Homestead(ing), as defined in the Webster dictionary is:

1a – the home and adjoining land occupied by a family b: an ancestral home c: home


It is a universal definition that cuts across race, religion, and bioregion.  We all live somewhere, and in most instances that place is home.  My home is the state of Minnesota, TurtleIsland (U$A).  I have lived in Minnesota my whole life – so the hot humid summers and the cold, dark winters are a part of me and my history.  There truly are four seasons where I live, and most people who live here, or somewhere similar will tell you that the changing of the seasons is one of the appealing aspects of spending your life in a place like Minnesota.  Right now it is the third week of January, with a typical average temperature of around 10 – 20 degrees Fahrenheit in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Outside there is not a lot going on.  Because the chickens went into this winter molting, and we do not have a light in their coop to trick their chicken – circadian rhythm, we are getting very few eggs, and the only green things growing right now are small patches of water cress located in a secret, year round fresh water spring a few miles from my house.  The wood pile slowly shrinks in size as we keep ourselves warm, and our hopes and dreams of spring grow with each new seed catalog that arrives in the mail.  It is true that winter in Minnesota is cold and dark (at least outside), but it is also a time of reflection and preparation for when we are reborn into the lush and verdant days of spring that are soon to come.

So what does it mean to be an Urban Homesteader/Farmer in a northern climate?  What are some of the challenges we face when it comes to growing food or staying warm?  What are some of the creative solutions and responses we have available to us to take on these challenges?  Many pages and chapters in many different books have been devoted to these questions and solutions, so it is not my intention to go over all the details with a fine toothed comb, but rather discuss some of the generals – some of the things that have and haven’t worked for me, some goals that I am shooting for, and a bit on how this all ties in with energy descent.

Here is a view of our side garden.  You can see a cherry, plum, and apple tree and a bunch of snow.

Here is a view of our side garden. You can see a cherry, plum, and apple tree and a bunch of snow.

Let us start with the most basic of basics – Food, or specifically how we grow it in a cold, northern climate garden.  While that may sound like a silly question, there are definite steps that can be taken to insure success as a northern gardener.  The first thing from my own experience that really matters is the location of the garden.  Needless to say, wherever you live, garden location is the primary concern, but a northern climate garden situated in the wrong spot can be very discouraging and less than productive.  We have three main gardens on our property, two of which that have great southern exposure and all day sun, and the third (which is the oldest) is shaded in the morning by a giant Red Spruce.  It is this third garden which I will use to illustrate a few points about garden location.

10 years ago, when we started gardening on our new property, our yard was very different than what you see today.  There were many more trees (that have since been removed by wind and chainsaw) that put limits on where we could site a garden.  There has been a massive landscaping project that involved a fifty foot long swale to divert rain water from going into our basement, and there has been the purchase of the neighboring lot a few years back.  All of these factors have influenced the evolution of our property and the ability for us to become more successful garden farmers.

It is the red spruce that is the main problem for this garden for two reasons – First, which is obvious, is the amount of shade that it is casting onto the garden for the first part of the day.  The second problem is the proximity of the red spruce to the garden.  Because it is so close, the garden soil is being slowly acidified as the needles drop to the ground.  Most annual vegetables are going to do best in a soil that is close to neutral on the PH scale.  So when you are working with a soil that is slightly acidified along with a significant amount of shade, quality vegetable production is going to suffer.  A couple take away points then: 1) While it is impossible to always pick a perfect garden location (especially in the city), try to locate your garden south facing, with as little shade as possible.  2) Avoid spruce trees and other coniferous evergreens if at all possible.

Another aspect of a successful northern garden is acknowledging the length of the season, and picking appropriate plants that can thrive in the period of our relatively short summer growing season.  It is true that a wide range of annual vegetables have been adapted to many different regions, so the selection that we have to choose from is immense. Within this vast field of genetic bio-diversity though, are proven winners – plants that will perform exceptionally well, year after year in northern latitudes.

Here is a short list of plants that we grow every year, that are dependable, high performers – potatoes,  tomatoes, kale, collard greens, radishes, beets, salad, garlic, carrots, turnips, beans, and a handful of others.  By having this core group of plants that have grown and produced consistent yields over the years, we have built in an insurance policy of sorts.  No two growing seasons are alike.  Some years are warmer, some more wet, and all the different variations on weather cycles affect how each plant will grow.  One season, we may have a bumper crop of tomatoes, while the summer squash underperforms.  By growing this diverse selection of annual vegetables, we help to insure a harvest of some kind from at least a portion of what we are growing.

Directly related to the varieties of vegetables and fruits we choose to grow in our gardens, is the idea of season extension.  By extending our growing season through the use of cold frames, row cover, hoop houses, and solar greenhouses, we keep our diets and dinner plates supplied with fresh greens and veggies later into the season.  While these indispensible tools are not scalable for every situation, they are very adaptable and realistic goals for many homesteads.

Here is one version of a cold frame we have experimented with.  Low cost, and the bales of straw can then be used to mulch the garden in the summer.

Here is one version of a cold frame we have experimented with. Low cost, and the bales of straw can then be used to mulch the garden in the summer.

In a place like Minnesota, with the right hoop house or a well designed greenhouse, it is possible to grow food throughout the winter.  These systems, when properly designed, not only allow us to grow all the veggies we are used to eating well into the cold months of winter, they also provide us with the opportunity to push gardening zones.  St. Paul, Minnesota has traditionally been zone 4a, but in the last year it was upgraded to zone 4b.  This is not a huge difference, but with climate change becoming a reality, I predict that the trend of improving gardening zones will continue, at least for those of us in colder regions of the world.

After scavenging and collecting materials for the last few years, I am finally entering the design phase of my future greenhouse.  I am still quite a ways away from breaking ground on this project, but ultimately my hope is to have a heated, year round greenhouse that will have a fig tree or two, tea bushes, cardoons, a few perennial herbs, and raised beds for salad and braising greens.  Talk about pushing zones and extending the season!  Admittedly, my dreams of constructing a heated, four season greenhouse may be on the extreme end of gardening projects, but it is doable and will provide even more food for our family!

The last part of the homestead garden that I want to discuss in this article is all the perennial plants that are also available to us.  Perennials can provide us with more than just food – compostable materials, domesticated and wildlife habitat and forage, fuel, fiber, shade on those hot sunny days, and nectar and pollen for honey bees are just some of the reasons to include as many perennials into our landscapes as possible.

Perennials that we can include in our landscapes can range from ground covers, herbs, chop and drop nutrient builders, flowering and fruiting shrubs and bushes, brambles, berries, wild flowers, fruit and nut trees, and all the way up to climax forest trees.  All of these can be a benefit to our overall homesteads in some way.  Whether they can keep us or our livestock and bees fed, turned into medicine, or provide us with fuel for heat in the winter – all perennials have a place in our home gardens and landscapes.

My favorite perennial to grow and live with are the apple trees.  There is something magical about them – steeped in history, and surrounded by myth and legend.  My love affair with apples started with the story that Michael Pollan told us in The Botany of Desire.   The story of the apple in America is also the story of the man that spread its genetics – John Chapman, or better known as Johnny Appleseed.

Johnny Appleseed doing his thing!!

Johnny Appleseed doing his thing!!

Johnny Appleseed represents for me not just a historical figure, but also a way of life.  He promoted food in some of its most weedy forms, and apples, and WILDNESS, and CIDER!!  What is more needed today than the reminder that he can give us?  A reminder of what it is to be human, what it means to play a role and lend a hand in the production of our food, and what it means to plant, grow, and participate in a community!

So there is the first installment of the Northern Urban Homestead series.  I covered a lot of ground, but there is so much still to discuss.  Over the next few months I hope to return to this idea and elaborate more on other aspects of the northern climate homestead.  There is plenty to cover – more ideas about our outside spaces, the kitchen and cooking, more DIY projects and much more!  Until then, stay warm!  Peace & Cheers!

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As we continue to trudge through this unseasonably cold spring up here in Minnesota, a holiday that I have never really appreciated was celebrated today. Arbor day, a day to plant and take care of trees, was conceived by J. Sterling Morton in 1872. Morton was a respected patriot and agriculturalist who served under President Cleveland as Secretary of Agriculture, transforming that department into an aid and information resource for farmers. That first Arbor day, celebrated on April 10, 1872, over 1 million trees were planted. That tradition continues today with cities and states holding their own Arbor Day events. This morning we attended the W. St. Paul Arbor Day tree planting at Harmon park (also where our first community garden will be) and planted a Prairie Fire crabapple tree. There were hotdogs and lemonade, pamphlets about the emerald ash borer and a raffle drawing for trees. We ended up winning one of the trees and took home our own Prairie Fire crabapple and planted it this afternoon. I am super excited about this tree. Crabapples are great pollinators for other apple trees (which we already have a lot of , and are getting more), and they are absolutely beautiful. Another thing about crabapples that a lot of people are not aware of is their culinary uses. Crabapples can be made into relishes and other preserves, but they are also a traditional and important apple variety used in the making of hard cider.

A pretty close-up of a Cornelian Cherry!

Another surprise today was waiting on our front stoop when we got home, our two Cornelian Cherries showed up. Cornus Mas, an edible form of dogwood has a long history stretching back all the way to the Romans. The wood is prized for tool handles and the berries have been used throughout eastern Europe, the Balkans and parts of the middle east for wines, preserves, desserts, and as a dried, salted snack. The cornelian cherry needs two varieties for proper pollination so we purchased one called Red Star and another called Yellow fruit. They will grow anywhere from 10-15 feet and will produce fruit for years to come. They are a welcome addition to the north edge of our flower and herb garden, and serve as a great upper story in a permaculture guild. For more information about cornelian cherries, here is a great article I found last winter that is a great read and may make you want to grow some for yourself.

In a perfect world Arbor day would be everyday. I love trees – the inspiration they give to poets, the air they give us to breathe, the fruits that nourish us, and the lumber that keeps us warm and dry, trees are essential to human survival. This past winter, with the help of two of my nephews, I cut down about ten trees in our new lot. This is something that I did with a heavy heart, but in the long run it is a good thing (the wood will be heating my house in two winters, and we have a ton of wood chips now!). The lot we purchased last summer was overgrown with buckthorn, Chinese Elm, and volunteer spruce trees. All of these trees have made our back garden less then optimal so they had to go. I have made it my goal to replace every tree I cut down with a new one. So far I have planted two Russian Rowans, The Prairie Fire crabapple, and the two Cornelian Cherries – five to go. Luckily I have one more apple tree, the Amere de Berthcourt, French cider apple on the way, and I will be grafting another 15 apple trees once the rootstock shows up in the mail. So by the end of the summer I should be good on my promise plus some. I hope to turn this passion for fruit trees into something awesome and epic, my plan is to start an urban nursery and orchard over the next few years. Not only do I want to grow fruit for my family and friends, I also want to provide high quality fruit trees for my community. And from now on I will be participating in Arbor day every year! Cheers!

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Fuel for the Fire

A hatchet, small sledge hammer, and pointed wedge all used for splitting wood.

Splitting fire wood has become a regular winter chore for us here at Autonomy Acres.  Like I said in a previous post, the majority of our home heat comes from our wood burning stove.  My two favorite types of wood to burn and split are oak and maple.  Both types are hard wood that burn long and hot which is great for heating a house.  Elm is another very common species of tree found here in Minnesota.  It is another hard wood that is great fuel for heating your house, but it is very hard to split by hand.

This pile was twice as big at the start of winter.

 Compared to oak and maple which are very straight-grained wood, elm is very knotty with a wavy flow of the grain.  Due to the trees natural traits and disease that affect elms, it is a pretty easy wood to find for free off of peoples curbs at all times of the year.  What I have found that makes splitting elm easier, is waiting until the coldest days of the year.  Something about the extreme cold temps make splitting elm that much easier, the colder the better.  For me this is a great thing.  The cold days, the best ones for splitting wood, are almost always sunny.   Being easily depressed from the long dark nights, getting out to chop wood on a sunny afternoon is a shot of good medicine.  It is also good meditation and exercise, I always feel better after splitting a pile of wood.  We have another few months of having to heat the house, so we will keep splitting wood and thinking warm thoughts of spring.

A freshly chopped pile of Oak and Elm, also my axe and splitting maul.

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