Thursday, January 28, 2016

Two person timber frame build

A slideshow of Mike and I building our home.

The natural light throughout the house is the first thing you’d notice when coming in the front door, or maybe the large timber bones. Everyone says, “it feels really good in here," and I certainly agree. The walls are sheet-rocked but not mudded; electrical wires poke out of their blue plastic boxes; we charge phones, the laptop and headlamps with a generator; we only just installed hardwood flooring on the first floor. We carry in water from a spring at the town hall, we use a composting bucket for a toilet, we bathe in a rubbermaid tub in the middle of the kitchen with water we heat on the stove. 

I have never lived in such a comfortable situation.

This is the story of how we did it:

June 20, 2009: We meet. On our first date, a seven hour walk around Binghamton, NY, we find out we both want to build our own house in the woods.
June 2010: Our plan to fund building our home and homestead begins with the owner financed purchase of a two unit rental property (my student loan debt disqualifies us for bank loans). Our down payment is credited back to us at closing for security deposits, taxes and water bills, we only have to bring a couple of hundred to closing. We spend the next five months gutting the basement-turned apartment-turned basement back into a one bedroom apartment where we live until Spring 2011. We live “free” without paying a landlord and have part-time jobs, but money is always tight.
October 2010: We tour a 2.4 acre parcel outside of Ithaca, NY. It is southwest facing, sloped, densely wooded on the uphill acre, with a seep spring at the front of the property. We love it but can not find a way to buy it.
January 2011: I find out the property is being auctioned for back taxes after the corp that owns it failed to prove they serve the public good and are denied tax-exempt status. I attend the auction on a rather sad whim, thinking I was going to watch someone else whisk it away from me. Heavy deed restrictions banning the sale or lease of gas, mineral, oil and timber rights limit the folks looking to buy any of the dozens of parcels up for sale and I walk away with the property for $1,200 (we wouldn’t sell or lease those rights anyway). I had to borrow the money from a friend with me at the auction. Mike and I would later pay her back in labor. 
May 2011: When the two-unit across the street goes on the market our real estate agent from the first deal finds us a private investor who loans us the money at 12% for twenty years with a five year balloon payment. The idea was to put all of the net income from this property against the mortgage every month, paying the balance down quickly. The reality was a problem property that lost money the first three years we owned it. We sold a car I really liked to cover the down payment. I’m still a little bitter.
July 2011: I show the above property to a potential renter. Turns out her father is also considering buying a two unit for his daughter to live in while attending school. I meet with him and eventually he decides to invest in real estate by loaning us the money to buy a $34,000 dollar two unit. You get what you pay for.
October 2011 - April 2012: We learn about a building materials auction 45 minutes away and start buying up material. Most of the windows are brand new replacement windows we got for $25 a piece; metal roofing that will cover the house, a shed and the chicken coop for $500; a new $350 french door for $50. The list goes on. We’re paying for this with part-time jobs that we leave in March 2012 for many reasons, but now I think perhaps the most salient: we’re not good at working for other people.
May 2012: We buy a second house from the guy who sold us the first (having moved to a different city to start a family he wants out of his Binghamton business). It is by far the nicest property we own and the only one we’re not currently trying to sell.
June 2012: We buy a used camper trailer. We put in a driveway on the property. The highway superintendent drives by to see us hand digging out the culvert ditch and offers to send one of her guys down with a backhoe. Delighted, we return to Binghamton but are disappointed to discover, a week later, that they removed far more material than was useful. We have one day to get 40 tons of fill and stone delivered and formed into a driveway using shovels and rakes. The next day the camper is delivered.
July 2012: Several tenants stop paying rent and move out, the remainder of the summer and early fall is lost to expensive and lengthy renovations. We’re once again buying groceries on credit cards.
November 2012: We move back to Binghamton after discovering the camper batteries will not power the furnace ignition once outside temperatures drop below freezing. 
Winter 2012-13: This is a disheartening time. I feel as if I’m moving too slowly and not being effective in achieving my goal of writing in a house in the woods. 
April - June 2013: We move back to the land and build a room addition onto the camper using free, reclaimed material. We put in a reciprocating living roof that is lovely and time consuming. Money is particularly short, the properties are taking up a lot of our energy.
July 2013: In one week we felled, cut to length, sorted and labelled for future milling (rafter, joist, beam, etc.) 28 trees. We hired someone to come drill out six below frost holes for our piers. 
August - September 2013: The pier bents are installed along with one 20’ long 8”x 8” sill plate. Mike’s dad comes up for a week to help us out. I start to have mobility issues and nerve pain in my left arm but we don’t have health insurance so I ignore it until we get ACA coverage. Turns out I injured my rotator cuff, probably while processing the timbers. I mention it because it took me years and months of ineffective physical therapy to take this injury seriously. I’m only now finding relief through chiropractic care, so I’ve been in varying levels of daily pain for two and a half years over an injury that probably could have been healed in a few months if I’d taken care of it. 
Winter 2013 -14: We live in the room attached to the camper in the winter of the polar vortex. The rocket mass heater we installed fails by January and we live in a 45 degree home for months. We can’t keep fresh produce, it freezes. The dog’s water bowl freezes on the ground. We sleep in a cocoon of blankets with sheets of mylar stapled to the wall and ceiling over the bed. 
April 2014 - August 2014: Timber framing is heavy, hard work. Mike’s dad joins us several weekends throughout the summer and into the fall. Money is tight, we do odd jobs for a local retiree, have rental issues and make slower progress on the house than hoped for but but the frame is done in time for us to start preparing for our wedding. 
September 2014: We get married and go on our honeymoon, a cabin in the Adirondacks. We really like being in the woods.
October - December 2014: We roof, side, install windows and doors, run electric and insulate.
December 21, 2014: After three break-in fires, we spend the first night in our home. I’m sure we cried from happiness, we’re happiness criers. The wood stove we installed is beautiful, the glow of the fire fills the first floor, and we spend this winter blissfully lounging in shorts and t-shirts because it keeps the house so warm.
May 2015: We were making steady progress with the house and outdoor projects until Mike was injured at work (a part-time job at a small market and deli three miles down the road). A pan of hot oil exploded and he suffered 2nd and 3rd degree burns to 27% of his body. Weeks in the hospital, grafting surgery. Saying this stalled work on the house seems unnecessary. He is healing remarkably well and weathered the situation with determination, grace and humor. 
I have trouble talking about the experience, still. Coming so close to losing Mike has changed me. For one, thanks to the last few years, I've seen what we’re capable of living through in several, dramatic examples. I’m also learning to be easier on myself and more impressed with us, rather than frustrated we’ve not arrived at our fully completed goals yet.
That being said, I don’t think we’d buy rental properties if we got a do-over, though I still haven't thought of an alternative that would have worked better for us. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Chicken coop with run

we'll finish the trim work in the spring, but for now it's done
After the same dog attacked and killed three of our six chickens in two separate incidents we needed to adjust the way we kept our hens. Until the second attack we were in the habit of letting the ladies free range across the land most days, even leaving them out if we were only going off land for a few hours or less. They stayed well within the front acre of our two and half acres, walking back and forth throughout the day, feeding themselves, lowering the cost of raising them, producing more nutritious eggs and growing to be hardier birds than their cooped up counterparts.
our house in the background, didn't finish painting before winter

But a dead chicken does none of those things.

So I designed a coop that gives them an outdoor space and is large enough for our flock of thirteen to age into retirement and house their future replacements.

The coop is 8'x10' with an 8'x8' attached "run." In the morning we open the door between the two and close it at night. The run is covered at the moment because we're expecting snow any time now, but once the spring rains pass, I'll take the tarp off half of the run for them to get more sun.

On days we're outside working they get to free range, but this way they get outdoor time and lots of space even when we're gone all day.

We built the run first with cattle panels curved and secured to the wood base. The chicken stayed in here until the middle of November without a problem, while we built the coop. It was noticeably warmer inside the run even with the open ends.

We applied linseed oil to the floor for moisture protection before putting down hay and we will insulate the ceiling but haven't gotten to it yet.

We'll paint it in the spring, I'm thinking green with white trim, but that's probably because everything right now is grey and brown.

Design elements:

---Roof overhang: provides nice weather protection during feeding/watering chores.

---Metal roof: allows us to harvest rainwater for use with the chickens, nearby garden beds and/or to water the mushroom logs we store under the pines behind the coop. Also, we had them left over from building the house, waste not...

---Detachable run: in the summer we'll probably pull the run away and use it as a tractor coop to move them around the land.

poop board below roost, waterer and food below board
---Poop board: I found this concept on and was drawn to it primarily as a way of reducing moisture in the coop. Moisture and cold weather in the coop is a recipe for respiratory problems and frostbite; chicken poop is watery. Remove the poop, reduce the moisture. An additional benefit is every few days we add a good amount of this excellent source of nitrogen to our compost pile.
     A key element of permaculture design is trying to get multiple uses/benefits from one action; poop boards fit the bill. I was hesitant to install them as I read many folks decrying how often you have to clean them. While settling into a consistent routine of daily chores is both aspirational and fulfilling for us, life can get in the way and I was almost scared off. But I'm glad I went for it. We've only had to clean it about once a week. I'm sure once our ten newest birds are full-sized it will be more frequent but even then, it won't be daily. I left eight inches between roost and board, perhaps this is why we're not experiencing the "piles of poop" problem others have had, maybe theirs are closer.
       ---an added bonus of the poop board: we can hang the feeders and waterer under the board, protecting them from the inevitable attempts to roost on top of them and reducing the amount of litter contamination
      ---our poop boards are made from the ends of the metal roof panels we used for the house (cut edge against the wall of course). The metal is easy to clean and now we don't have two foot sections of metal roof panels without a use.

---Wide roost: in our tractor coop builds we used black locust branches for the roost, which look neat and rustic and are probably easy for the birds to grip. However, I read about installing a 2x4 wide side parallel to the ground so the hen's bodies cover their toes (rather than their toes wrapping around and being exposed to the cold) as a way to prevent frostbite. They seem to be very happy with the roost this way and I'm happy that their toes are warmer.

---Ventilation: the front window tips out to allow ventilation, chicken wire on the inside keeps it predator-proof

With each new project we get to see the land becoming our working homestead!
a work in progress

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Chicken First Aid

Watching a sick or injured hen walk slowly around the property can be heartbreaking, particularly if you don't know how to care for them or how much intervention is too much and when you need to "call it" for compassionate care reasons. Knowing some simple chicken first aid can go a long way towards easing the difficulty of the situation.

The neighbor's dog has given us too much opportunity to learn wound care in the form of two separate attacks. I'm always surprised how easily people are willing to accept that a pet dog is intrinsically "more valuable" than my immensely productive (eggs and insect foraging) flock. 

Thankfully we can't see their property from ours or I'd still be nursing a powerful anger.

Side injury July 10 with stitches 
Hind injury July 10
I've read that sick or injured chickens should be isolated to avoid contagion and possible bullying by other members of the flock who may view the injured bird as a waste of resources. We haven't had sickness so far, fingers crossed, and bullying has not been a problem for us. Actually Admiral Crank, our largest and bossiest hen, seems to take on a nurturing role, keeping close to injured girls throughout the day. Know your flock I guess.

Chicken first aid supplies we have on hand at all times:

1. Apple Cider Vinegar: about a tablespoon in a gallon of water acts as an antibiotic and boosts their immune system. We put ACV in the chick waterer from the start and often do with the full grown hens, particularly during any times of stress. Different sources online suggest ACV also aids with calcium absorption, producing better quality eggs. Anecdotally, there is definitely an improvement in egg quality when we consistently use ACV.

2. Electrolytes and Vitamins: give their body everything you can to help their natural healing abilities.

3. Iodine: A vet friend gave us this tip. Make a solution of water and iodine that resembles weak tea and  use it to flush out the wound daily or multiple times a day depending on the severity of the injury. Chicken wounds are susceptible to fly larvae, little white wormy parasites feeding on the injured flesh. This of course could be a benefit in terms of cleaning the wound, however they will also eat healthy flesh. I prefer to flush them out and manage the wound cleaning myself.

Side injury Aug 3
Hind injury Aug 3
4. Vetericyn: we picked this up at our local tack and feed supply last year. According to the owner this stuff is so great she knows people who spray it on their own wounds. I haven't tried it but it certainly seems to speed the rate of healing for the chickens.

5. Lavender: this one I have tried on myself, my husband, and all the animals. Put a few drops of the natural antiseptic essential oil on wounds, burns, or bites to increase the rate of healing, reduce scaring, relieve pain. And of course the scent is calming, which doesn't hurt.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Making mushroom logs!

We now know how to make mushroom logs thanks to a friend inviting us over for a mushroom inoculation work party!
last year's logs stacked and starting to fruit

Is there any better way to learn a new skill than trading labor (a.k.a. hands on experience) for knowledge? And of course we got to take home some logs of our own!

Why grow mushrooms? As if that oh so yummy umami isn't reason enough, they also provide selenium, vitamin D and B, antioxidants, trace minerals and can help boost your immune system. AND, locally grown shrooms can be hard to find and pricey.


--Logs cut in late winter/early spring
--Sawdust Spawn
--Sawdust Palm Inoculator: this one looks nice and sells for $35
--Adapter and drill bit for drilling holes with angle grinder $35 and $14
--Food grade wax (clear paraffin based cheese wax)
--Wax applicator

Inoculating Mushroom Logs: 
Miguel gets the sawdust spawn ready while
Devan checks out the inoculator

Green wood should be used for mushrooms logs, so cut in late winter or early spring. 

Different mushroom strains prefer different wood. We used oak for the shiitake.
Mike drilling holes

Using an adapter to attach the drill bit to an angle grinder made drilling the holes (about six inches apart down the length of the log) much faster and easier. We drilled four rows, one on each log "side."

me using the inoculator 

The holes are filled with spawn by "stabbing" the inoculator in the bucket of sawdust 4-5 times to pick up the spawn and depressing the plunger over the hole.

Meaghan paints wax over spawn-filled holes

Paint the wax over the spawn to seal in moisture and keep out insects and other spores.

We cut up old sponges and taped them to sticks to dab on the wax. I think cheap craft paint brushes or foam brushes would have been a bit more efficient (after a few logs the sponges needed to be replaced) but then again, waste not want not.

spawning friends
(not even the worst pun to come to mind while writing this post)
Working on a pallet on top of saw horses was a great way to stabilize the round logs, particularly as we were on a small incline. This really is a labor intensive process in that you can't pre-drill all the logs and then fill them all with spawn and then wax them because you want to leave as little time for contamination of spores and holes as possible.

A three person work party is pretty necessary: one person for drilling holes, another for inoculating and a third for waxing, but of course more hands are better!

Don't forget to label your logs with the strain and year they were inoculated.

totem method for oysters or lion's mane

Totem Method:

The totem method is best for fast-growing mushrooms like oysters and lion's mane.

1. Clear away a spot.
2. Put down cardboard and evenly spread about eight ounces of spawn.
3. Place one 12" long log on top of spawn.
4. Place eight ounces of spawn on top of log.
5. Place another 12" log on top of spawn.
6. Place eight more ounces of spawn on top.
7. Place two inch thick piece of wood on top of that spawn.
8. Place large paper bag over totem and secure with twine but don't close off air supply by tying too tightly. Leave this on until it deteriorates from rain or is covered in mycelium.

More on the totem method.

Caring for Mushroom Logs:

Stack mushroom logs somewhere dark, damp and protected from too much wind that might dry them out. Logs can be watered every few weeks to maintain moisture.

Don't stack logs directly on the ground. Pallets, blocks or bricks would all work to get that first layer off the ground.

Logs can fruit for 2-6 years. Some will fruit in the first summer but many won't fruit until the second.

Twice a year you can "shock" the logs into fruiting by soaking them in cool water for 8-12 hours and then hitting them with a mallet. Some think this works by replicating a falling tree, signaling the nearby availability of fresh food.

One bag of sawdust spawn inoculated around 30 logs for us. At $25 a bag, even with the tools and wax factored in, it's much cheaper than buying a mushroom log (locally available for $40-50) and was a great afternoon.

Thanks Miguel, Devan and Meaghan!

Monday, April 27, 2015

Seed germination: the paper towel method

The traditional way of starting seeds in seed trays and graduating hardier seedlings up to larger pots before putting them outside requires more interior space than we can provide.

We use a method my ingenious father-in-law taught us--back when we were living in a small basement apartment--and it's worked every year without fail.

--paper towels
--sealable sandwich bags


1. Wet a paper towel with room temp water (I don't know if the temp matters, as with houseplants, I try not to use very cold water thinking it might be a shock).

2. Wring out paper towel until it's simply damp.

3. Place seeds as evenly spaced as possible on half of paper towel, but don't get crazy about it because some seeds inevitably shift.

4. Place folded paper towel in labeled sandwich bag.

5. Hang bags where you have space.

Check on the dampness of the paper towels every other day, when the towel gets too dry add a splash of water into the bag, seal it and let the towel soak it up. I try not to harass the seedlings too much so I don't take the paper towel out that often (ok, more than I should because I'm impatient and want to check their progress, especially when I have other work to do).

The seeds will germinate and grow about 2-3" in these bags. At this point we transfer the seedlings to a small hoop house we made for just this purpose and they thrive, but you could also use this method for germination and then plant the seedlings in pots.

Your seedlings may have rooted into the paper towel and become difficult to separate from it: DON'T pull them from the paper towel! Why damage roots when you can just cut out that section of paper towel and plant it with the seedling.

Happy Springing!

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Seed Saving Exchange: Save money with local winners!

The wonderful folks over at the Tompkins County Cornell Cooperative Exchange host an annual "Seedy Saturday Seed Swap" for local gardeners to come and exchange seeds they saved from last year's crop.

Cost of admission is either a $5 donation OR seeds to swap with others.

In addition to swapping seeds, the day featured hands-on workshops on indoor seed starting, and beginner seed saving and seed cleaning.

My favorite aspect of this event was the ability to speak with the folks providing the seeds to get detailed information about how to grow a certain variety in our climate. This is different than the blurbs on the back of seed packets and often much more specific because the info is coming from experienced gardeners working with similar conditions as us.

Look at the detailed information supplied for the popcorn.

And because the seeds were free we were able to pick up seeds that maybe we wouldn't pay for this year, particularly flowers and herbs.

All told we brought home 25 vegetables, 2 beans, 5 herbs and 7 flowers. Not bad for $5.

Averaged at $2.50 a packet, which is definitely on the low end, we figure we would have spent $97.50. And we got invaluable information from local gardeners.

This year we plan to save seeds and I'm sure I'll write about our experiences doing so.

Until then, here are some resources we'll be using:

Check out your local exchange for similar workshops and resources.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Small house movement

We've been living in our small home for two months now and it's been a surprising adjustment. We haven't finished sheet-rocking, we don't have plumbing or electricity (other than the generator), and we have only moved a fraction of our stuff in because we don't want to get cluttered while we're still in the construction phase.

cracks forming as the wood dries
The wood stove is drying out our timbers which occasionally pop as they crack and split in really pleasing ways.

The heat from the wood stove warms like no other heating source I've lived with and I love being able to set the three quart cast iron on top with soup or squash and let it cook for hours while I do other things. 

The home we've built is breathtakingly beautiful and we are reveling in our creation.

But the winter winds brought with them another unexpected feeling: we started wanting things, lots of things. I was making mental lists of the stuff we could buy now that we're in our house that will make it feel more like a home. When we moved into our temporary 9x13 room we downsized a lot of our belongings, particularly furniture that we knew wouldn't fit in the house. Now that we have so much space (which is definitely what it feels like even though the whole house is only 480 sqft), we want things to put in it right?

I'm not sure if it's because we've spent the last few years in a self-imposed privation in order to afford building our small home or if it's because we are living in the house we plan to live in for decades and are eager to see it in a completed form or if it's because sleeping on the floor on the "mattress" we pulled from the camper feels too much like moving in the wrong direction (early twenties/first apartment/air mattress). I do know that the list of things I wanted was snowballing out of practicality and affordability. 

Wanting things, particularly things you can't have, is not a path to happiness and contentment.

We talked about it and identified our growing angst and connected it to the desire for things that we just can't have right now. The truth is we don't want that much stuff. Building a small house was in part a financial decision, but it's also a way of life--a commitment to self-sufficiency and a turn away from consumerism--that we whole-heartedly embrace as our way of navigating the world. Of course we still want things, like a bed alcove with built-in shelving and storage, but we want to make those things, not only because we can't afford to buy them, but because we really, really, really love making things.

Honestly, I don't understand not wanting to make everything you can. But then I know a lot of people who don't understand wanting to build your own house when it means no plumbing, using an outhouse even in sub-zero weather, and really intense, difficult labor. 

But who can argue with the results?