A Journey From Urban Gardening To Rural Homesteading
I came to love gardening in my early twenties, while living in a city apartment with about 300 square feet of outdoor space. I knew I was lucky to have it and each season tried to make it more and more beautiful. My friends endearingly called it “The Secret Garden,” as a six-foot privacy fence kept it secluded from the busy pedestrian traffic just a few feet away. But as the years went by, and as my partner and I started thinking that maybe our dreams of more land and a farm could actually become reality, we decided to bite the bullet and go for it.
But before we set out looking for our little piece of land in the rural outskirts of Vermont, we went on a three-month road trip throughout the country, knowing we’d find inspiration and knowledge from all the beauty we encountered. We were right; from the spectacularly green farm fields in Ohio to the ocean-side flower stands in coastal California, it all solidified the notion that we wanted to try it on our own.
Finding The Land
When we returned from our trip, setting up shop in his parent’s basement (who, by the way, have some of the most beautiful gardens I’ve ever seen), we got to work. We knew we wanted an old farmhouse with enough land to have plentiful gardens and raise chickens, ducks, and maybe sheep. After only a few weeks of looking, I fell in love with an 1836 farmhouse in Huntington, Vermont. It was just shy of two acres, most of which was fenced in with dog-proof fencing, and it was on the main road into Huntington. We knew that eventually, we would want to set up a farm stand, so having a house on the Main Road was a bonus. Also, we didn’t really have a choice; all of the old farmhouses we looked at were on main roads, as when they were built those were the only roads in existence.
After several months of the not-so-fun process of buying the home, we finally gathered our belongings from various storage spaces and garages, packed up our then-small team of animals: two cats, a dog, and six chicks that had been living in his parent’s garage, and moved in.
Getting Started In The Gardens
Immediately, the work started. We set the chicks up in our downstairs bathroom, painted over a few not-so-elegant maroon walls in the home, and set our sights on the outdoors. We were fortunate to inherit the home from gardeners who had spent a lot of time creating spectacular perennial beds and maintaining a native wildflower meadow in the large field. So in the first season, although it was hard, I decided not to tinker with the existing garden beds and just see what was what.
We spent our first summer on the property lining the inside of our fence with wildflowers, creating a wildflower bed adjacent to our patio where I could play with different annual wildflower plantings, and overhauling a heavily-weedy shady spot tucked alongside our woodshed. I rescued several end-of-season perennials from American Meadows to add to this shady garden bed and they are doing fabulous this spring.
Besides our gardening adventures in our first summer, we had our first experiences with raising animals. Everything then—and now—was new to us, and there’s a huge, but fun, learning curve. Our bookshelves are lined with various how-tos on raising chickens, ducks, homesteading, small farming, and more. My browser history is spotted with ridiculous questions like, “Why do chicks look dead while they are sleeping?” (It’s normal, I guess …)
Besides the six chicks we moved in with, within the next few months we acquired four baby call ducks, three silkie chicks, and two bunnies that I rescued from the local fairgrounds. We had our fair share of missteps in our first season with learning how to set up a chicken yard, trying to raise more than a dozen baby birds together in our downstairs bathroom, and also trying to enjoy our new life as homeowners and homesteaders. That summer my parents jokingly (I hope) called our little farm “Green Acres,” after an old television show about two city dwellers who started their own farm. Spoiler: hilarity and failure ensued.
Planning For 2017
As summer turned into fall, and the birds finally grew big enough to head out into their coops for good, we started to think about the future of our farm. And, like everything with us, we always think big (bigger than maybe we should). We decided our goals for 2017 were to grow enough food to last us all year, acquire livestock to shear for wool, raise bees, and add to our growing flock of birds. A pretty small undertaking, don’t you think?
Well, it’s now May and we’re on our way to ticking off all the boxes on our list. We spent the winter by the woodstove reading about vegetable gardening, raising bees, and raising alpacas. Yes, alpacas! After some research, we found out that alpacas are much easier to raise than sheep and their wool is, most of the time, higher quality.
Our Alpaca Journey
In February we found a small alpaca farm in Vermont, just about an hour away, and took a road trip the day after a huge snowstorm to pick out our girls. We knew we needed to choose at least three, as alpacas are pack animals and do best in groups. After a fun day at the farm, admiring their show-winning alpacas (but nervously smiling because we could not afford them), we chose three non-show quality beauties. One brown, one white, and one black that we named Marjorie, Bernadette, and Sophia. We had already prepared our barn for them, so they were delivered the next day.
And just like that, our little homestead of a dozen or so birds, two dogs (yes, we got another dog, too) two cats, and two bunnies became a real live farm. The chores become more important and time-consuming, but more rewarding at the same time. It took the girls several weeks to warm up to us and our property, but now they are right at home and as I sit and drink my coffee in the dining room in the morning, I’ll often see them walking right by me, on the patio, heading out to their favorite shady corner to graze. They are awesome.
An Impromptu Greenhouse
Our next adventure would be somewhat of an unplanned one. I found an opportunity to barter with a contractor friend who needed a website built for his new business. In exchange for the website, he built me a greenhouse(!!) It is everything I could have imagined and more. He finished it in the beginning of March, which left me plenty of time to get my seeds started for the vegetable garden.
After a few snafus with temperature (we really need to get an industrial heater for it, but it wasn’t in the budget this year), I ended up starting my seeds in early April. This was my first time starting anything from seed and my first time ever growing in a greenhouse, so—like everything here—there was a huge learning curve. Since my initial planting, I’ve rearranged my layout a few times and finally think I have it right (for now, at least). Because it was a little chillier in the greenhouse than the seeds preferred, they took a little bit longer to germinate and grow than normal, which scared us a little. But in the end, 90% of what I planted is up, thriving, and ready to be put out in the garden within the next couple of weeks.
All About Annuals
I am an unabashed lover of annual wildflowers, which I know seems ridiculous because of the whole “sustainable farm” thing. But hey, what can I say? There’s something exciting about finding and trying new annual wildflowers each year, only to be able to start from scratch the year after. I started a variety of annual wildflowers in my greenhouse in April, including about 100 sunflower seeds so we’ll enjoy plenty of sunflower blooms throughout the season. I’m also planning on creating a Sunflower room (more to come on that), so I started some of the Russian Mammoth seeds to get a jump start on their growth.
I also started 20 different kinds of Zinnias, Marigold, and Calendula, which I’ll eventually pop in the vegetable garden, containers, and fill in empty gaps through my gardens. Other annuals (I know, I told you I’m obsessed) that I’m growing from seed this year, instead of purchasing from a local nursery, are Black Eyed Susan Vine, Four O’Clocks, Sweet Pea, Celiosa, and Snapdragons.
I can’t explain the calm and joy it feels to sit in the greenhouse, especially in the early spring when it’s still chilly outside, and smell the soil and plants growing. At this point in the season, the greenhouse is packed full of seedlings and home to our four chicks that we got several weeks ago. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a happier group of chicks; they have plenty of bugs and grass to munch on!
I’ve started enough vegetables and flowers in the greenhouse to give starter plants to any friends, family, or neighbors that want them. I just gave my first flat away yesterday to a friend who came over to help transplant seedlings; seeing her joy and excitement for growing the plants was amazing. After we clear out the greenhouse of the current seedlings, I’m planning on doing a second crop to extend our garden all the way through fall.
Throughout the winter, my partner Jeremiah (who is “in charge” of the bees), took classes at a local beekeeping society and built our boxes. We picked up the bees several weeks ago and it has been an adventure, to say the least. Did I mention there’s a learning curve here on the farm? We only have one bee suit, which we gave to his mom when we installed the bees, so only about half a dozen stings later (and some language that won’t be repeated) the bees were installed and happy in their new home out by the greenhouse and vegetable garden. In the few weeks since they’ve been here, they are doing well and the recent warm weather has got them out finding their way to the many flowering trees, shrubs, and weeds we have on our property right now.
Planting This Season
Even though it doesn’t feel like it this week, in my hardiness zone (4b) there is a chance of frost until the end of May, so I won’t be planting until then. But when we do, we’ll be adding a row of summer-blooming bulbs including Dahlias, Gladiolus, Calla Lilies, and more out by the greenhouse, along with a variety of annual wildflowers. Paired with the native wildflower meadow we have already, the bees will have plenty to work with and we’ll have more than enough weeding, watering, harvesting and cutting to keep up with.
The next few weeks will be the busiest on our little farm; along with planting, our alpacas are going to be sheared and we’ll send the wool away this season to be turned into yarn. In the future, we want to get our own spinning wheel and do it ourselves, but it’s just not plausible this season. Our chicks are also getting to the point where we’ll start integrating them with our older birds. Along with all this, we’re going to build a little farm stand to put out front where we can start selling our eggs, yarn, and cut flowers once the summer comes.
More To Come!
I can’t believe it’s been less than a year since we’ve made the transition from our urban garden to this lovely rural homestead. It’s been a lot of learning as we go, but also so much fun to sit down at the end of the day, tired from hard work, admiring the happy animals and healthy plants we’re caring for. I’m sure there will be more stories, photos, and gardens to talk about in the future; so stay tuned!
You can follow Amanda’s journey on Instagram @HuntingtonRiverFarm