Gardening Plans

We are very excited this year as we go from the shaded 100 square foot garden patch (behind our friends’ house in Chicago) to a full-on 2000 square foot “real” garden.  There is some shade around the garden, but I think we’ll get plenty of sun for a lot of the garden. I think this is approximately the same size as the garden we had at our first house when I was a kid.

We’ve already planted a patch of garlic (it gets planted in the fall just before frost really starts).  Will be cool to see how that works out.  There is also a few plants of asparagus already planted.  We have several compost bins/piles going, as well as some leaf mulch breaking down over the winter.

During this time of year, the days are short and it’s pretty dreary.  But the bright spot is receiving all the garden catalogs, allowing dreams about the summer.  This year we are trying some new catalogs. We’ve bought a lot from Johnny’s in the past and we still love them, but we want to support some other small heirloom/organic seed companies. These companies need all the help they can get to stay in business. It’s important to make sure those of us who care continue to have an alternative to the evils of Monsanto, GMO seeds and the like.

I thought it might be interesting to share what we ended up purchasing. We might have overdone it a bit, but this is an experimenting year.  We actually had a decent number of seeds already, so we didn’t need everything.  This is just a partial list of what we plan to plant.

Johnny’s
Encore lettuce mix (a standby, we’ve grown this for several years already)
Legume inoculant – to encourage nitrogen formation on the roots of the various beans and peas we are growing
Yukon Gold seed potatoes
Celosia – Chief Mix

Comstock Garden Seeds – one of the oldest seed companies in the country, since 1811
Radish – French Breakfast
Broccoli – Calebrese
Savoy Cabbage – Perfection Drumhead
Pea – Little Marvel
Onion – Giant White Stuttgart and Yellow Dutch
Brussels Sprouts – Long Island Improved
Squash – Blue Hubbard
Squash – Delicata

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds – we think this might be our new favorite catalog
Lettuce – Rocky Top Mix
Arugula
Mizuna
Tatsoi
Oregano
Culantro (Vietnamese Coriander)
Marjoram
Beet – Chioggia
Beet – Cylindra or Formanova
Radish – Pink Beauty
Tomato – Stupice, San Marzano, True Black Brandywine, Pink Icicle
Cauliflower – Purple of Sicily
Cucumber – Mexican Sour Gherkin
Carrot – St. Valery
Pepper – Hungarian Hot Wax
Pea – Alaska
Sugar Pea – Mammoth Melting, Sugar Snap Pole
Onion – Red of Florence
Melon – Boule D’Or, Sugar Baby
Squash – Kuri
Sunflower – Mammoth
Marigold – Red Cherry

High Mowing Organic Seeds – local Vermont seed company
DMR (downy mildew resistant) Lettuce Mix
Chard – Rainbow, Fordhook Giant
Thai Basil
Thyme
Sage
Bean – Dragon Tongue
Sweet Pepper – Sweet Chocolate
Kale – Russian White
Potato – Red Norland

Seed Savers
Cucumber – Bushy
Fingerling Potato – La Ratte

D. Landreth Seed Company
Genovese Basil
Spinach – Bloomsdale
Zucchini – Black
Bean – King of the Garden
Marigold – Sparky
Nasturtium – Dwarf Jewel
Hollyhock – Nigra
Tomato – Paul Robeson

We are curious how some of this stuff will do in the garden and whether we are biting off more than we can chew (pun intended).  But it should be fun to have plenty of room to experiment and see what works in our shorter growing season.

What are you growing this year?

2011: Year In Review, Part 4

The rest of our year mainly revolved around settling into our new home. I decided to stay with Clarity Consulting and work from home, a decision that is working out fairly well so far.  It’s definitely a bit of an adjustment, but it’s great having no commute, eating lunch with my wife and now having time to spend with our little one here and there throughout the day.

When we got here, there were still some parts of the garden going from stuff the previous tenant had planted.  However, most of the garden was overgrown with weeds and about half the garden had nothing in it.  There was one raised bed already in place.  We like raised beds, particularly for square foot gardening, so we threw together another one with some scrap wood that was lying around.  The soil in the garden is amazing, due to years of amendments done by our landlords of compost and manure.  We gradually got all the weeds pulled out and planted some stuff for fall.  Our landlord let us borrow a tiller and I worked up all of the garden that didn’t have plants.  We planted buckwheat and winter rye as cover crops in the tilled areas.  I built some low hoop houses with some PVC pipe, rebar to anchor it and Agribon 19+ row cover over the raised beds.  We planted a bunch of cool weather crops, such as greens (lettuce, arugula, Asian greens, mizuna, spinach), broccoli, kale, radishes and turnips.  Unfortunately, we had a lot of trouble with slugs that we didn’t catch in time, probably partly due to the weed cover that allowed the soil to remain overly wet.  So we lost a lot of plants, but a few things took off.  We harvested radishes and kale into December.

We did some painting when we first got here and it took a bit longer than expected, but the place looks great.  Kristin did the majority of the unpacking.  It’s great to have so much room here, we have three bedrooms, an unheated attic, a cold pantry and a small barn out back that we can use.

We visited a few churches and eventually landed at the Middlebury episcopal church, St. Stephens on the Green. Really great people, including a few farmers we’ve been getting to know.  Kristin has made the acquaintance of some fiber folks (spinning, weaving, etc.) and joined a fiber guild. We’ve also met a lot of local artistic people (writers, potters, musicians, etc.)  So we are gradually building a community.  Everyone in Bristol has been very welcoming and we are starting to make some local friends.

We didn’t travel for the holidays, due to Kristin’s pregnancy. Kristin’s parents came to visit for Thanksgiving and we made a local turkey and fired up the antique wood kitchen stove to make some of the dishes. Some fits and starts, but I finally figured it out with our landlord’s help.  Our baby was due on December 6th.  Kristin went to yoga on December 1st and had her water break in class at around 12:30PM.  She made it home by about 2:30, after a stop at the hospital to get checked out.  We were ready to settle in for awhile, since everyone had told us early labor usually takes a bit.  But it seemed the contractions were coming pretty frequently and Kristin was already in a bit of pain.  Turned out the baby hadn’t heard about the early labor taking awhile, so we headed to the hospital and by 5:45PM we welcomed Ezra Geiger Swartzentruber to the world.

The rest of December was a bit of a blur, as the first few weeks of having a newborn typically is. Kristin’s mom came up to help a bit the second week.  Then Kristin’s parents and brother came for Christmas and my mom came for New Year’s for a few days.  So we had a bit of help.  It really made the holiday season special and was a great way to end a year of many changes.

This is a four part series, check out the other posts here:

2011: Year In Review, Part 3

We had signed up with one of the bigger Allied affiliates in Chicago to move us to Vermont.  They seemed to have pretty good reviews, although in doing research it just seems like very few people have great experiences with cross-country movers.  I saw several suggestions in moving forums to just “sell all your stuff” and buy it again in the new place.  I guess that might make sense if you are in your twenties, but we had spent years collecting books, beer-making equipment and other specialized stuff.  So I wasn’t going to do that.

Allied was supposed to move us on August 10th, a Wednesday.  They said they would give us exact details once they had a truck scheduled. As the day approached, I called to confirm and they said they still didn’t have the exact details.  Finally I called them the day before and they told me they hadn’t yet identified a truck or driver.  I asked them what we were supposed to do since we had a lot of different plans made around that date.  All they could tell us is that they were working on it.  Needless to say, I was not happy and asked them what the point was in scheduling 2 months in advance if this was the result.

This continued for another day and they still had no ETA. I started researching just renting a truck myself after all, even though it was the last thing I wanted to do. I don’t love driving big vehicles, particularly not on a multi-day trip.  But it didn’t seem like there was any guarantee of when Allied would get their act together.  We had mostly done all our final packing and really didn’t have much left unpacked to even use for a few days.  I ended up calling Penske just to see if there was any possibility of getting something on short notice and it seemed like they might have something.  There were some advantages to moving ourselves, as there were certain things Allied wouldn’t move for us and it was going to be a tight fit getting all of them into our car.  Also, Allied wouldn’t be delivering our stuff for 7-14 days, so we would be in a new house with nothing except an air mattress and Kristin was pregnant.

Finally on Friday, I was stir-crazy and fed up with Allied, so we decided to move ahead with renting a truck and moving ourselves.  I canceled the Allied move, which fortunately didn’t end up costing us anything.  I called for some help from friends again and I picked up a truck on Saturday morning.  We got the storage unit emptied and the truck loaded by Saturday evening.  We headed out early Sunday for Kristin’s parent’s place in central PA.  This wasn’t the most direct route, but would give us a place to crash where the truck would be safe.  Most of the trip went fine, but we ran into heavy rain in PA and then had to go up over a mountain on interstate 81 where it was very foggy and there was roadwork going on. It was pretty scary and I was exhausted from driving the truck all day. We got behind a semi truck and took it slow.  There were spots with no guardrail and only one lane was open, so it was nerve-wracking.  We finally made it through and got on the last main road going to Pottsville, arriving around 10PM or so.

We took Monday off to rest and I actually did a little work that day.  We headed out again on Tuesday to go the rest of the way.  The trip went pretty well and we had good weather.  As we climbed a hill and crossed over into Vermont, the landscape stretched before us and it was such a lovely site I’m not ashamed to admit I shed a few tears.  It had taken so long to get to this point and we had a lot of obstacles.  The rest of the way was pretty easy, although the Vermont backroads had Kristin cringing as my back tires would edge off the side of the road.  No shoulders, just narrow roads beat up by the Vermont winters.  But we finally pulled up in front of the house I had rented and Kristin got to see it for the first time. I still had the truck for another day, so we took our time getting unloaded and hired a couple of local guys to get the heavy stuff.  It was money well spent after our long ordeal getting there.

This is a four part series, check out the other posts here:

2011: Year In Review, Part 2

We had made arrangements to stay in Chicago with our friend Mark until August.  He rents a house in Wheaton.  We wanted to wrap up some work stuff, have time to spend with friends and figure out moving and housing logistics.  We moved everything out into storage in time for the first closing date.  We thought we had plenty of time (we were allowed to stay with Mark for 6 weeks by his landlords).  But after the closing date kept getting moved, we were starting to get tight on time.  Arrangements were made with Allied to move us, but they wanted an arm and a leg (almost $3K) to store our stuff from the end of June until we actually moved in August.  And then it turned out they had no trucks available in late June anyway.  Should have taken that as a sign…  So we ended up renting some trucks and moving stuff to a storage unit ourselves.  Around this time, Kristin’s dad had open heart surgery and she had to go to PA to be with the family, so I was doing a lot of the moving and packing by myself.  Fortunately we had a lot of good friends who pitched in and helped out.

We had decided to move to Vermont and I wanted to look for housing, but without an official “cleared to close” I was afraid to find a place or sign a lease.  I had to reschedule my flights twice before I could finally make it out to Vermont.  By the time we finally closed in the 3rd week of July, I only had a few weeks to find a place to live.  To make matters worse, the rental market in Vermont is fairly tight AND tends to be expensive, so the choices seemed a bit limited.  There is really no central web site for rental options either.  Armed with a list of options from Craigslist, I flew out to Vermont for a long weekend to try to find a place for us to live.  The first day or so didn’t go that well, but then things started picking up and I was able to make a series of appointments.  The only place that Kristin was really intrigued by turned out to be the place we landed, but it was a bit further out than I wanted and I wasn’t sure it was still available.

I was staying with a friend in Essex Junction and when I mentioned Bristol to him and his wife, they got excited and said how great a town it was and probably a good fit for us.  The house also had plenty of room, a garden and wood stove heat; all things we were excited about.  I contacted the owner and she did get back to me, but thought someone else was already very interested.  I found out later she was being very picky and not even getting back to many people, so in retrospect it is surprising I even heard back.  She was already showing the place on Friday, so she said I could come by after that.  When I got there, the other person had gotten sick and didn’t show up, so I was the only one to look at it.  I immediately connected with the place and probably would’ve rented it on the spot. Leslie (the landlord) wanted to chat for awhile and then wanted me to think about it and talk to Kristin.  I told her we were expecting and she was excited about the possibility of having a young family in the house again.

I left to go look at another place, but that only reinforced how much closer this place was to what we wanted. Kristin was all for it, so I called Leslie back that evening.  She agreed to rent us the place and I drove down on Saturday to finish the deal. We hung out most of the afternoon and worked on a lease together. Vermont is very much a “handshake deal” kind of place, particularly in the rural areas.  I got to meet her husband Jim and we immediately hit it off.  He was excited to talk about all my farming research and ideas.  We share a lot of common interests in doing things “the old way”.  Every time we get together the discussions are always interesting.

So I was able to leave Vermont with a great place rented, some new landlords who also seemed to be fast friends and an excitement to finally move.  But we still had to make that happen and there was going to be one more hiccup on our road to Vermont.

This is a four part series, check out the other posts here:

2011: Year In Review, Part 1

2011 turned out to be a very interesting year, full of twists and turns and lots of changes.  We started the year with our condo still on the market after about a year and a half.  Showings had nearly dried up.  Nothing was moving.  We had been wanting to start a family, but were hoping to wait until after we moved on from Chicago.  At this point, since it was hard to tell whether our house would sell anytime soon (and we weren’t getting any younger), we started to think maybe we should at least start trying.

We found out in April that Kristin was pregnant, right around the time showings started to pick up again.  We had dropped the price yet again, just desperate to get out of Chicago.  We finally got our first offer in early May and it was a bit of a kick in the teeth.  But we started negotiation and eventually got to a contract we could live with.  Unfortunately that was just the beginning of the process.

Our buyer wanted to do an FHA loan, as the majority of people are doing right now with credit so tight.  Our building was not already approved, so we embarked on the process of getting that done.  I’m not sure if this is the FHA in general or our contact in particular, but I’ve never seen such an incompetent bureaucracy in my life.  We gave them an initial set of documents and it took them almost a month to get back to us and tell us half of the stuff was incomplete or wrong.  By this time we were only a few weeks out from our scheduled closing on June 24th.  We tried to get the documents completed, but we would give them one thing and then they needed something else.  Don’t’ these people use any sort of workflow or checklist?  It was ridiculous.  It’s a wonder people don’t just give up.  If the government wants to know why the real estate market isn’t recovering, the FHA would be a good start as part of the problem.  Anyway, we missed our first closing date and eventually got everything worked out, but it took another 3 weeks.  We were finally able to close on July 19th, almost a month later than originally scheduled.  Fortunately the closing itself went smoothly and we were finally officially homeless (and debt-free).

This is a four part series, check out the other posts here:

Farming Resources

As many of you know, Kristin and I have spent at least the last 5 years learning all we can about sustainable living, gardening, small-scale farming and homesteading.  Over that time we’ve found lots of great resources we like, good books and web sites of interest.  I’m slowly collecting all those in a new section on my web site called Farming.  I think there is going to be a good amount of information for anybody interested in similar things, so check it out if you are interested or mention it to anybody who you think might find it cool.

swartzentruber.net Farming Resources

First month in Vermont

So we’ve already been in Bristol for a bit over a month.  So far we are really enjoying it for the most part.  Kristin has been busy at work unpacking and getting the house into shape.  We’ve been whipping the garden into shape, although the season is nearly over.  We’ve planted some cold tolerant veggies in a couple of raised beds (one existing, one hacked together with spare cedar shingles).  Hoping they get enough of a start before the first good cold snap.  We’ve planted lettuce, radishes, kale, rutabaga, carrots, Asian greens and some other things.

I’ve also tilled most of the garden and put down some cover crops.  We already have a nice crop of buckwheat goingWinterRye on one side of the garden and I just planted another section of winter rye.  If all goes well, we might even get a few loaves of bread out of it.  But mostly it’s just for green manure and to keep our good soil in place over the winter.  The soil in this garden is gorgeous, rich stuff.  Our landlords did a lot of amending over the years (manure, compost, cover crops) and it has made a big difference.  It’s teeming with life, both visible and invisible.

HoopsWe put up some low hoops over the beds as well, using Agribon AG-19 row cover material over some PVC pipe planted in the ground over some rebar.  This only gives us frost protection down to 28 degrees, so we’ll probably lose most of the plants at some point.  But combined with some mulch, it might get us towards the end of the year. We are using this time to experiment with some of the techniques we’ve been reading about, so it will be interesting to see how things go.

Working from home has its pluses and minuses, but it has mostly been going well.  I built a new PC because my old desktop was just too slow and that has helped.  It’s nice to have lunch with Kristin most days and have no commute.  Focus can be hard at times, but I think I’m getting the hang of it.

As far as Bristol, it’s a nice quiet town, but lots of people out and about.  Friendly neighbors. Beautiful setting.  One nice change from Chicago is that it doesn’t take forever to get basic life stuff done.  I’m talking about getting a driver’s license, setting up bank accounts and utilities or finding healthcare.  There are less options to be sure, but the options that are here have been easy to find, get set up and the quality has generally been very good.  We have a wealth of hikes within a 10 mile radius, which is a welcome change from having to drive hours to find good hiking in Illinois.  Even after a month, the geography is still stunning and only promises to get more that way as we are seeing the first hints of the beautiful fall foliage Vermont is famous for.

There are some things that we are still trying to adapt to.  Driving everywhere for the most part, unless we want to just walk into town for something.  Fortunately we have a great bakery, several grocery stores (including a natural foods/organic store that is awesome), drug store, hardware store and most importantly brewpub right in town.  But for anything else we have to drive.  We are starting to make some connections with people, but it is taking some time.  It’s not easy to find a lot of the ethnic food or groceries that were so easy to come by in Chicago, although there is no shortage of great food here and some good Vietnamese places in Burlington.  Church options are not plentiful, although we’ve found very good community vibes and friendly people at the ones we’ve visited.  Still not sure if we’ve found our place yet.  Certainly nothing like Chicago where there were a variety of good options, although some were a bit of a drive, probably more than from our place to Burlington here.

We are starting to move into a more intense baby mode now. Kristin has found the midwife practice she is going to use and we have a birthing center picked out.  We are starting to buy all the “stuff”, although doing a lot of research.  Tonight we have our first birthing class.  We are down to about 10 weeks, which will probably fly by very quickly.

I’m sure there is more I could write about, but that’s a good start for now.

Life Changes

Well, 2011 is shaping up to be a big year for Kristin and I.  Some of you know and some of you don’t that we have been interested in quite awhile in moving somewhere back east and eventually buying some land.  There are certainly things about the city we still enjoy very much, but over the past couple of years we’ve become increasingly dissatisfied with life here in Chicago.  Part of it is just the politics, lack of room and cost of living.  But mostly we are finding that all the stuff we like to do keeps going back to having land and space to spread out.  All of our hobbies take up room, including homebrewing, baking, canning and preserving, music and gardening.  And our interest in food, particularly the sustainable, grow it yourself kind requires land.  Neither of us are Midwesterners and we wouldn’t be in the Midwest other than Chicago.

So over the past 4-5 years, we’ve been doing lots of research on farming, animals, gardening and places to live.  We’ve visited quite a number of farms, including a lot of dairy goat farms and cheese operations.  We decided to put our condo on the market almost 2 years ago, realizing the timing sucked, but not realizing how bad.  We finally got a buyer in May of this year and after a long ordeal involving FHA approval and various other issues we were able to close on the sale of our condo last week.

Initially we had thought about taking a year and traveling/interning in various places before settling down, but since our condo took so long to sell we decided against that.  We had visited and considered various places, but the one that kept coming up to the top of the list was Vermont.  I think there are a variety of reasons.  One, it is one of the most food oriented states around, with lots of CSAs, cheese-makers, food co-ops and opportunities to buy local food.  Not to mention still proudly holding the title of most brew pubs per capita of any state.  We like that it’s fairly sparsely populated, with a lot of areas that are still relatively undeveloped and a dedication to green spaces and wilderness areas.  A big reason is that the state is just absolutely stunning, with an amazing mix of mountains, gently-rolling hills, forest, pastures and lakes and rivers.  And we also find the progressive politics to be a better fit for us than the corruption and ineffectiveness that is Illinois politics.

So in August we are moving to Vermont.  We’ll be renting a house in Bristol with a garden, wood stove, and plenty of storage, among other cool things.  Bristol is one of those quintessential Vermont villages.  It’s located about 30-40 minutes south of Burlington and about 15 minutes from Middlebury.  Our landlords are part-time farmers about 10 minutes south and I’ve already been enjoying getting to know them.

More to come later.  I’m hoping this move and the chance to do a lot of things we’ve been dying to do will spark more frequent updates to this blog.  But we’ll also be very busy for awhile, so feel free to ping me and ask how we are doing.