Up until now most of our work has been outside. This winter we finally started tackling some interior projects as well, other than replacing water heaters and other fun necessities. Right before we bought the place the seller had installed brand new, near-white, cream-colored carpeting. With two young kids, the carpeting didn’t stand a chance, especially in our dining room. So, last weekend, with a bit of help from my dad, I ripped out the carpeting from the living and dining rooms and installed cork flooring. It was a ton of work, including undercutting our limestone hearth with a jamb saw outfitted with a masonry blade. It was a disaster zone, so my wife took the kids and went out of town for the weekend. I managed to finish the job and have everything nearly back in place when she walked in the door on Sunday. This is how it turned out…

Build, Shelter

Put a Cork In It

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Build, Food, Land, Shelter

Winter Coop

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Our first double-yolk.

Food

Upgrade Complete

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Build, Food

Battening Down Hatches

The forecasts are predicting our first snow flakes next week, so it’s a good thing I spent part of last weekend winterizing the coop. I cleaned it out good, installed a water de-icer and also installed 4 marine-style tarps to the outside of the run to prevent snow from blowing in and to reduce drafts over the winter. I took some measurements a few weeks back and ordered some custom sized heavy-duty polyester tarps from MyTarp.com. It was really reasonable from a cost standpoint. When I got them home I installed stud-fastener grommets instead of typical brass tarp grommets. This will allow me to easily open up a tarp for a rare warm winter day and also ease taking things off easily in the spring.

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Here’s what they look like installed. It wraps the lower half with four separate tarps, one in the back, one on the door and two for the sides, which wrap around the front of the coop.

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I went with white because it will let the most light through and my hope is the coop will disappear into the landscape a bit once we have snow on the ground.

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A close up of the stud fasteners. You’ll see these a lot on boats. They’ll make removing and installing the tarps a breeze going forward.

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The big news is that our two Red Sex Links started laying regularly two weeks ago. Now the three Black Australorps better get a move on it.

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Build, Land

Reclaiming Stones Past Cast

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The creek on our property is seasonal. In the fall through spring it’s a downright torrent at times, but in summer, there are periods when it dries out, as shown above. When it does, there is a ton of flagstone that is exposed. I think the prior owner dumped a couple of tons worth of old patio in there. This summer, I dug up a couple hundred pounds of it to use for a flagstone walkway to the chicken coop. There’s plenty more for future projects too. I’m thinking fire pit next summer.

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Laying out stone is maddening at times, but with some patience it all falls into place. Here it is before I dug it all in.

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The near-final result. The stone is set in on about 3 inches of gravel. I re-seeded it all for a grass-joint finish. Now my feet won’t be covered in dew every morning when I walk to the coop.

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Build, Food

Plunging Down the Poultry Path

A big part of moving was finding a municipality that would allow us to keep chickens. We moved in August 2012 and spent the first few months making interior improvements to our fixer upper. When spring sprung in April, it was time to build the chicken coop. While I toyed with designing and building a coop from scratch, I didn’t have a ton of time on my hands (with an infant, etc.), so I ended up picking up a base plan from The Garden Coop. Glad I did too. The plan was great. Well documented, but flexible. I ended up making a few tweaks from the base plan – moving the chicken entrance door and how some of the interior was constructed – but overall the plan was solid. I highly recommend it.

It took parts of 5 weekends to build. I had about 2 days in that period that I could focus on the build, otherwise is was 2 or 3 hours here and there. From the start, I gave myself a deadline by ordering 3 Black Australop and 2 Red Sex Link chicks from MyPetChicken.com that were due to be delivered June 4th. I ordered lumber for delivery and boned up on keeping poultry by reading a few books and visiting backyardchickens.com. In the end, things went rather smoothly overall.

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The foundation was easily the most difficult part. The area was sloped and the ground was frozen when I started. Eventually, I got everything leveled and the basic frame erected.

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Next up was the roof. The polycarbonate panels were remarkably easy to install and should last forever. I went with a semi-opaque version that will block direct sun yet still let a lot of light in.

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Shown with some of the siding installed above. Wrapping and securing the hardware cloth was the second most difficult part of the build, but worth it. It extends a foot into the soil and I have stone all the way around the base on top of that. Theoretically, this thing is predator-proof.

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Here it is in its final glory, ready for the girls to arrive.

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Here’s a recent shot, with the ladies enjoying their coop. You can also see the grass-joint flagstone walkway I recently installed.

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Here’s my daughter checking out the chicks. She’s named them for us. Meet Pipsqueak, Uno, Tootsie, Nugget and Chancellor Puddinghead. (I know, I know…)

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Dang, these chicks grow fast. Here they are at about 3 weeks old. Gangly teenage years.

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They’re not quite to laying age, so the benefits of keeping aren’t fully realized yet. The biggest plus to date has been having a place (other than the compost bin) to use our food waste. These girls are voracious omnivores. Our new nutrient cycle is: Food Scraps U+2192.svg Chickens U+2192.svg Poo U+2192.svg Compost Pile U+2192.svg Food U+2192.svg Repeat…

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The ladies roosting. Chancellor Puddinghead (The Red Sex Link on the left) has become the top hen of the pecking order. She’s bold and curious. The others follow her lead generally.

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A detail of the interior clean-out door. This allows you to clean out the coop while keeping them contained in the run.

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Devouring the leftover pancakes from this morning’s breakfast.

So far so good. The next few weeks should produce the first eggs from the coop. Then we’ll see if all of the work has been worth it! I must say, now that it’s all built, the “keeping” part is rather low maintenance; food, water and an occasional clean out.

 

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Build, Land, Shelter

A Place to Call Home

After our first child, our family quickly filled up our small, 1,100 sq. ft, 2-bedroom “starter” home in Wauwatosa, a suburb of Milwaukee. It had served us well, but with another child on the way, it was time to start looking for a new house. A place to raise some kids. We made our wish list out and the priorities landed on a few seemingly simple requirements. 3-4 bedrooms, 2+ acres, chicken- and maybe goat-friendly ordinances, good schools and a reasonable commute to work for us. This was a needle in a haystack of a house we were looking for. There were plenty of large-acerage, chicken-friendly homes out there, but they were in the boonies. A 1-hour commute each way easily.

Then, in August of 2012, we finally found this place:

Our little slice of heaven.

It’s almost 3 acres in Milwaukee County (a 15-minute commute to downtown on most days) in the Village of River Hills.

  • 3-4 bedrooms? Check. The kids’ rooms are a bit small, but so are they.
  • 2+ acres? Check. Almost 3!
  • Chicken & goat-friendly ordinances? Check. The chicken coop was one of our first projects. (Look for another post on this soon.)
  • Good schools? Check. And our daughter loves her school.
  • Reasonable commute to work for us? Check. This is one place I expected to have to compromise on.

It’s an interesting place. Both the house and the neighborhood. The seller was the original owner who built the place with her husband in 1968. It’s basically the Brady Bunch house crossbred with a German ski chalet. Dark wood. Open floor plans. Carpeting in the kitchen. Original bathrooms, including a goldenrod toilet. But, as mentioned before, “newly remodeled” was not on our wish list. My project list is long and expanding.

It’s basically the Brady Bunch house crossbred with a German ski chalet.

A quick rundown of major projects/repairs/purchases this first year includes:

  • Tuckpointing the fireplace and pouring a new cap
  • Building a bridge over the stream (oh yeah, there’s a stream too)
  • Building a chicken coop
  • Pouring a new patio in the back yard
  • Landscaping
  • Repairing our boiler and hydronic heating system (thanks home warranty!)
  • Replacing our water heater, dish washer and washer and dryer (thanks again home warranty!)
  • Painting much of the interior
  • Replaced entrance doors
  • Cut an opening and installed a new door off our dining room
  • Cleared about 1/4 acre of buckthorn with about 1/2 acre more to go
  • Purchased a riding mover to tame the acreage
  • Cut some initial trails though the woods and prairie

Why buy a house that needed that much work? It satisfied our wish list. We also wanted a fixer upper that we could put our stamp on and also build some equity with. River Hills is fancy-schmancy and we literally bought the house in need of most repair in the village I think. (Nice way of saying a total dump.) With a little elbow grease I think we can make out nicely on the place. But in all honesty, we bought it for the land and location. The aerial view above shows the canvas we have to work with. There are plans for bees, and orchard, a giant garden and some permaculture experiments. It’s been a great first year with tons of wildlife including turkey, deer, coyote and birds up the wazoo.

So there you have it. Moving forward on the blog you’ll see lot’s of the projects and experiments we’ll be undertaking at our new place and on our new land.

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Food

Reading About Growing

The Resilient Gardner, by Carol Deppe

The Resilient Gardner, by Carol Deppe

Spring is in the air, almost, and I’ve been reading lots about agriculture lately, researching what varieties of plants grow best in my climate. The best-written resource I’ve read lately is The Resilient Gardener, by Carol Deppe. She’s fiesty and opinionated (don’t get her started about her bad back), but I’ve never read a book about gardening before that was written with such wisdom, passion, and command of subject matter, all delivered in a tone that feels like a conversation with a neighbor over a fence on a cool summer morning. Her insight is scary and her methods practical. The only issue with the book is that it’s all based on her local climate in maritime Oregon, so the knowledge it contains doesn’t directly transfer to Southeast Wisconsin. Her approach however is what I will emulate.

Her insight is scary and her methods practical.

For resources closer to home, I just stumbled upon an amazing collection of publications provided by the UW-Extension system. It’s a huge selection of freely-downloadable PDFs on everything from growing grapes and tomatoes, to raising goats or chickens. You can purchase hard-copies, or just download them as needed. Very handy and makes me proud that my tax dollars are going towards such valuable resources.

Enough reading for now. I’m headed out to plant the first lettuces and spinach of the season.

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Energy

Time to Power Down the Death Star

One of the quickest ways to cut your energy usage is to find all of the power vampires in your house and shove a stake through their greedy, lifeless hearts. Cell phone chargers, entertainment centers, computers – many of these draw significant power even when turned off. As a starting point, I’ve decided to tackle my entertainment center.

Belkin Conserve Insight

The Belkin Conserve Insight

The first step in reducing your energy usage is actually figuring out just how much you’re using. Yeah, you can look at your monthly electric bill, but that just doesn’t give a granular enough view of what’s sucking power like a drunk at an open-bar wedding. I just ordered a Conserve Insight from Belkin. This handy little device is a less-nerdy, better-designed version of the tried-and-true Kill-a-Watt. Basically, you plug it into your socket and then plug anything you want into it. It will then measure approximate dollars as well as CO₂ or watts used by that item. After you figure out what the major drains are, you can do one of two things – replace them with more efficient versions or find a way to turn them off. Like, really off. Not, I-still-have-a-red-LED-light-on off.

That just doesn’t give a granular enough view of what’s sucking power like a drunk at an open-bar wedding.

Our entertainment center is the Death Star of our home. An HDTV, modem/wireless router combo, DVR, Xbox, Wii, multifunction printer/scanner/fax, and network backup drives are all packed into a quite warm, but tasteful, modernist box that is powered by single power strip. To power down the shield I plan to order a power strip that will turn off some, but not all of my gadgets. (I’d like the router and DVR to remain powered while everything else goes dark.) Not sure which one I’ll order yet, but Belkin’s Conserve Switch is a leading candidate right now. It even comes with a handy remote so I don’t have to dig into the heart of the Death Star every time I want to power it down.

Never thought I’d be measuring the power usage of every item in my home. Dear lord, I’m turning into my father. (Dad, if you run across this you can tell me, “I told you so.”) It’ll be interesting to see just how much energy I’m wasting in a daily basis. Count on an updated post about this.

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