Back to the land...

This blog is an account of our experiences trying to homestead in Eastern Tennessee. We've bought almost ten acres with power and a well, and a small shed for the well pump. Half the land is already cleared.

This year we haul out 10 tons of trash from an old burned down home. We plant a large garden, and fruit trees, and build a compost bin specifically for humanure. We build a small pad for a gazebo up under the oaks, and begin building our house/barn, with grading, a stone foundation, a concrete stem wall, and the modified post and beam frame. Everything is done by hand. We also dig four thirty foot swales across the top of the clearing and plant the berms with blueberry. A lot of work, and a lot more to go . . .

I'll also cover the process of picking out a piece of land, the negotiation, and "where to begin?" phase, at least how it all went for us.

[YEAR 2] - We build the shell of a 16'x25' two story cabin from scratch . . . check out how it was built.

[YEAR 3] - We try to finish the cabin . . .

[YEAR 4] - I move up permanently to the property to homestead full-time . . .

[YEAR 5] - Rachel and I try to make it as homesteaders . . with a wood cook stove, dairy goats and a cow, finish the barn, expand the garden, fence pastures, plant more fruit trees, build a flock of healthy layers, grow our own animal food - in other words . . . WORK WORK WORK WORK WORK . . .

[YEAR 6]
'Homesteading in Tennessee' is now HOLDOUT FARM. Check out our new farm website. We produce premium quality raw dairy products from our fodder-fed goats, pastured eggs, organic fruits and vegetables, and offer a seasonal list of classes on Permaculture Homesteading.
.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Grading the Barn

.

The first step in grading the barn is choosing where to have the finished grade. I take my saw station (a Stanley portable table with clamps for gripping wood), out to the middle of the barn and try to set it level. I then put a laser level on this [another tool I highly recommend for any large project, where a line or spirit level isn't dependable enough - but they're costly, $70], hold it level, and shoot a red beam at each post and have Rachael mark the dot with a pen.

We do all sixteen posts this way. I then measure down to the dirt with tape, and figure out the exact difference in height between the highest and lowest elevation. The ground drops 32" from the northwest post to the southeast. If I split the difference for the grade, that means digging down 16" on the back left post, which is only 24" in the ground. But it seems the only solution. That 8" will be secure in a concrete stem wall, and only half my foundation is post - the rest is a perimeter stem wall. So I think I can get away with it.

The next step is hoeing out the vegetation. I'd dug up a few big chunks of sod with a shovel when I needed some cover material for the compost bin. That was slow and arduous, and I realized taking out the vegetation was going to be a lot harder than I thought. I tried an actual hoe . . . useless. It didn't even break the surface. Grass roots are very tough, especially this crab grass or whatever it is. Look at the size of it:

I tried various shovels, still really got nowhere. Then I went to my favorite garden tool, the only one you really need - the spading fork. It's like a small waist-high pitchfork with four broad curved tines. It's also got a handle on the end, so you can really grip and lunge it:


I found that if I just lunged low at the sod, getting right into the roots, I could yank a whole clump out at a time. I'm not saying it was easy, but much, much faster than a shovel. I could fill a whole wheelbarrow (8 cubic foot) full of sod in thirty minutes. So removing the vegetation from this 1,300 sq ft space by hand was still going to take days, but only a couple. And that's working dawn to dusk.

I start in the front and work my way back:

The posts make a grid of 16, all 12' apart, so you can break the barn into 9 sections, all 12'x12'. I worked to knock out one section at a time:

But as difficult as tearing all that tough sod from the soil was, carting a full load of it up the hillside really wore me out. I'd decided to try and transplant the sod over to some bare areas in the clearing, to see if I could get grass growing again. Some of the oaks also had huge barren areas around them, so I mulched them too:

It's a great kid job - having them spread out the pieces of sod after I've dumped them from the wheelbarrow. I want the clearing to have a more park-like look to it, rather than forest that was only recently brutally cleared, with a few trees left standing, hanging on in the heat. Our property not only has a southern exposure, but because it's sloped it's tilted towards the sun, about 10 degrees. I do the calculations and it turns out we get as much solar radiation here as Key West. Again, great growing conditions, but the sun is fierce.


The heat is so bad we try to put up the tarp. It's a commercial blue 60' x 40' tarp, huge and heavy. We've tried to put it up once before, but even the slightest breeze gets the tarp billowing and impossible. But when the air's still, we give it another shot. I first take large pieces of insulation, and duct tape them to the tops of the posts. They look like toes. I've done this so the tarp won't rip as we pull it across them. It takes us hours to finally get the tarp into position, then it almost totally blows off, and I start over. It's a nightmare of racing with the ladder from spot to spot and tugging on it and tying it down. All in all it's about 7 hours of hell, and then it's up:


The shade is wonderful. But two grommets rip out of the tarp from the wind, and I'm pessimistic about how long it's going to last. Hopefully long enough to see me through the grading, because the heat was killing me.


I keep on hoeing it out:



Eventually it's done, and the place feels like a real construction site:


Now to grading. Here the key tools are pick and shovel. I've got a 5lb pick mattock and the half-length shovels, square and snub nosed. When it comes to a pick, get a real one, something light enough you're sure you can lift and wield, over and over - but don't go too light. On my patio job I'd tried a smaller pick and it lasted about 10 minutes. The mattock end hit something hard and bent all up. If you want to get whipped in to shape, and get your body turned into steel, I highly recommend pick and shovel work. Otherwise it's hell.


I tape the spot for grade on all the posts where the dirt needs to rise, then start swinging. Because it's hot I'm working in shorts and sandals. Sandals are not something I recommend when swinging a pick. But I'm trying to avoid getting overheated.


The nice thing about where I'm grading is there's not a single rock. Not one. The surface is sand, as you go deeper it gets denser with clay, there's an area about 20" to 24" down where the dirt actually gets softer, a rich crumbly red clay/sand mix, that I call "clay crumbles". Then beneath this is clay so solid it's like bedrock. The heaviest swing I can muster with a pick only penetrates this region about 1/2". But I'm only digging this deeply around the perimeter, for the foundation. The dirt inside the barn where I'm grading is never this dense.

Here I'm dumping the excess soil from the northwest corner into the low southeast one:


There is definitely a lot of technique to swinging a pick. I find that if instead of swinging down I try swinging from the side, I use different muscle groups, and I can pop a hunk of soil right out that's been loosened. The key is to avoid coming down on my feet.


Here's the back of the barn cut out, but still not deep enough:


The posts here are 6x6.


The girls can't really help me here, so they go tree identifying. They label their finds with twine and a little tag. The lone trees out in the clearing are red oaks. The grove of big oaks in the northwest corner of the clearing are white oaks. The young pines are either white or shortleaf. There's also a lot of red maple, dogwood, sweetgum, sourwood, cherry, and a whole grove of crabapples up behind the barn, all in flower.


Brooke, the youngest, picked up a 2" wolf spider and carried it around. Here's she's got a bumblebee on her hand:


A moth:

A cicada:

And she's got videos of herself with beetles. She's really in to insects.


Spiders I would have run from as a kid, she adopts and plays with. I admire that.


We have a windy day. Several grommets rip from the tarp. It starts whipping so violently it looks like it's about to snap a post, so I have to cut it loose. We roll it up, and put it in the attic of the shed. There goes our shade.


The grading in the sun hour after hour is exhausting. I try to go lay down in the shed, to nap, the gravel is so cool, but the mother bird keeps darting in and out, and I can't sleep. She's been doing this for weeks. She essentially has taken over this shelter. I just can't take it anymore.


There's an old birdhouse nailed to a pine at the front of our property. I go take it down and break it open to clean out old nest material. I'm going to take her nest (I think she's a flycatcher - by looks and call, and we've often seen her with flies) and put it in this birdhouse, and nail it up to an oak right outside the shed. I'm determined to have her out of here. And it's been so long . . . I think those eggs will never hatch.


I try to pry her nest loose from below but it's really stuck in there. So I climb the ladder to better pull it down. And just as I've got my hand out to move it, there are the chicks:



Well, they're not going anywhere. I call the kids over to see. It's pretty exciting.


The garbanzo beans I'd soaked and cooked in well water taste like metal, totally inedible. I'll have to start using creek water to cook, till we can afford a filter.


-
I confront a mouse in the shed. It's scampering away and then it stops to look at me, with that sort of rat-like curiosity, then scampers off.


-
A tick has bitten me right where I pee. I tried to pull it off with tweezers - I got the body, but couldn't get the head. It's still attached. I'm hoping eventually it will fall off. Ticks always go for the groin, or armpits, sometimes scalp. Your advantage is that they wander over you for a while looking for the right spot. But they're hard to kill by hand. I either burn them with a match or cut them with a knife or sharp rock. In fact I've got a little pan I set them in to burn them - I call it the killpan. They're not going to hurt you, their worst bite is like a pinch, but they are a nuissance. Every night before bed you have to check yourself, and pick off a few.


-
One morning I hear birds screaming, and go out to see them divebombing Mishka. He's got one of their chicks, and has killed it, throwing it around. I try to feed it to the large black rat snake. But he just takes off.


-
I take a walk along the top edge of our clearing and see tons and tons of blueberry flowers. I mean millions. There are huge blackberry brambles down in the ravine beside us. The kids and I take a walk around the area and find black cherry trees, umbrella magnolia, where it's moist, an autumn olive growing off the road, and about a half-mile down the road from us a huge creek, a river really, with a pure flower-rich brook flowing in. There's a pool the kids might be able to swim in. For the moment I feel like this property, and this setting, are perfect.


-
My wife has ordered 25 blueberry shrubs and they're going to be delivered soon. I'm going to dig swales and plant them on the berms. So I take a break from grading, and start the swales.

No comments:

Blog Index

10/30/08

BUYING RAW LAND

11/8/08

TRASH CLEANUP

11/10/08

WINTER IN ATLANTA

11/12/08

SPRING IN TENNESSEE

11/14/08

STARTING A GARDEN

11/15/08

BUILDING THE COMPOST BIN

11/15/08

THE FROST

11/16/08

GRADING THE BARN

11/18/08

DIGGING SWALES

11/19/08

PLANTING FRUIT TREES

11/19/08

BUILDING A STONE FOUNDATION

11/20/08

THE CONCRETE STEM WALL

11/21/08

BUILDING A SMALL 12'x12' PAD

11/21/08

THE GARDEN

11/22/08

BUILDING A DRIVEWAY

11/23/08

INSTALLING THE SILL PLATES

11/23/08

THE MODIFIED POST AND BEAM FRAME

11/27/08

FRUIT IN THE GARDEN

11/28/08

THE BARN FRAME

11/29/08

AUGUST IN TENNESSEE

11/30/08

HANGING THE JOISTS

11/30/08

CLEARING THE LAND

11/30/08

COUNTRY NEIGHBORS

11/30/08

THE HARVEST

12/1/08

PLANS FOR A CABIN

12/14/08

THE LAND IN WINTER

12/22/08

BARN UPDATE

12/29/08

WINTER PLANTING

1/4/09

EDIBLE PLANTS

1/10/09

WINTER TREES

1/12/09

WINTER TREES II

1/21/09

CHATTAHOOCHEE RIVER

2/11/09

THE STRAW BALE CABIN

3/26/09

THE STRAW BALE CABIN II

4/2/09

1880 FARMHOUSE

5/6/09

HOMESTEADING / THE CABIN

8/13/09

THE POST AND BEAM CABIN

8/22/09

RETURN TO TENNESSEE

8/25/09

SITE WORK

8/30/09

DIGGING THE FOOTERS

9/4/09

THE PIER FOUNDATION

9/10/09

911

9/11/09

FINISHING THE PIER FOUNDATION

9/12/09

THE GIRDERS

9/13/09

FRAMING THE FLOOR

9/16/09

DECKING THE FLOOR

9/17/09

THE POST AND BEAM FRAME

9/19/09

THE RAFTERS

9/20/09

INSTALLING THE METAL ROOF

9/21/09

FRAMING THE WALLS

9/26/09

DOORS AND WINDOWS

9/27/09

TENNESSEE IN JULY - OUR LAST MONTH

10/2/09

TENNESSEE IN OCTOBER

10/10/09

THE BARN FLOOR

10/15/09

PIGEON MOUNTAIN

11/10/09

NOVEMBER

11/16/09

PERMACULTURE: ANOTHER ROUND OF FRUITING SHRUBS

11/22/09

DRIFTERS

11/30/09

THE BARN ROOF BEGINS

12/20/09

'DRIFTERS' PART I

12/30/09

WEATHER

1/1/10

NEW YEAR'S IN TENNESSEE

1/25/10

DRIFTERS: PART II

3/2/10

MY SISTER'S WEDDING

3/21/10

FERTILIZING WITH HUMANURE

3/28/10

THE ADDITION FLOOR

4/19/10

THE ADDITION

5/11/10

RUNAWAY

6/13/10

FINISHING THE ADDITION

.........................The Timeline.........................

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
1992
-MAY . . . for Patty and I's first date, we skip school and go to the Pinnacle - a wooded overlook off the Susquehanna River.
-SEPTEMBER . . . I leave our hometown of Lancaster, PA for college - Penn State in Reading, 45 minutes away.

1993
-FEBRUARY . . . Patty and I both drop out of school, and camp in some woods behind a grocery store in Lancaster.
-MARCH . . . Patty steals her mother's credit card, and with it we take a train to Utah. We ultimately end up on the Northwest Coast, living in Port Orford, Oregon.
-APRIL - OCTOBER . . . We join a traveling carnival and work in it for 6 months. We sleep in the back of a Ryder truck, and go through California, Idaho, Washington and Oregon. I run the guns, and Patty does the goldfish. We save $9,000.
-NOVEMBER . . . We return to Lancaster and are arrested for stealing the credit card.

1995
-OCTOBER . . . We bike from Lancaster down to Charleston, South Carolina. Patty wrecks in North Carolina, and a friend drives us the rest of the way. We live in Charleston for 2 weeks.

1996
-JULY . . . Our first daughter June is born in Lancaster, PA.

1997
-MARCH . . . We sell everything in our apartment, and hike out of Lancaster with backpacks and our 9 month old daughter. We reach the Susquehanna River.
-APRIL - JUNE . . . We get a canoe and paddle 500 miles up the Susquehanna River to its source. We camp on islands. We get a ride to the Erie Barge Canal and paddle west.
-JULY . . . We are arrested in Little Falls, NY. Our daughter is taken, we're charged with neglect, and we fight the courts for months. We are cleared of all charges, but never get her back.
-SEPTEMBER . . . We take a bus out to Ruidoso, NM and camp in woods just out of town. We return to Lancaster and camp in the Brickyard for the rest of the month.
-OCTOBER - FEBRUARY . . . We live in an apartment in the Amish community of Strasburg, PA. Amish go by in their horse and buggies every day.

1998
-FEBRUARY . . . Our second daughter Rachael is born. We try to deliver her on our own at home and fail. Patty ends up in the hospital with a c-section.
-MARCH . . . We get a ride from a friend down to Covington, Virginia. We stay a week, and look for places to camp in the surrounding national forest. We find nothing, and go to New Mexico.
-MARCH - MAY . . . We camp in the Gila National Forest, north of Pinos Altos, a mile from the nearest trail. We camp above a spring with an infinite view west. We start building a hogan.
-JUNE - SEPTEMBER . . . We live downtown in Santa Fe, NM. Patty markets her paintings, and I get a N.Y. literary agent for my first book 'Flesh Aflame'.
-OCTOBER - DECEMBER . . . We rent a house in Crescent City, California, on the Northwest Coast, a mile from the ocean, on the edge of a bird sanctuary. It's great until the rains begin and we run out of money.

1999
-JANUARY - FEBRUARY . . . We camp in the Uwharrie mountains of central North Carolina, and look for a place to build a winter home.
-MARCH . . . We get a canoe and paddle the Holston River down towards Knoxville, Tennessee.
-APRIL . . . We get dropped off in the Smokies and paddle Fontana Lake. We stash our canoe at Chambers Creek and hike in to the Smokies for a secret camp. Patty paints the creek, and we stay 3 weeks.
-MAY . . . We live in a trailer just off the ocean in Myrtle Beach, SC. The sky is beautiful after storms and we love the pelicans.
-JUNE . . . We camp in the Brickyard back in Lancaster, PA, saving money for an apartment.
-JULY - DECEMBER . . . We live in Lancaster and save for our trip back out to New Mexico. We also buy the jeep.

2000
-JANUARY - JUNE . . . We camp and travel all over the Southwest, from the Gila, to Organ Pipe, to the Weminuche in Colorado. Brooke is born in February in a motel in Deming, NM.
-JULY . . . We stay in condos with a friend in Aspen, Colorado. I do concrete work. We then go to California, and look for a place to live in the Russian River area.
-AUGUST - OCTOBER . . . We rent a small house in Tesuque, NM, just outside of Santa Fe. We hike up into the Pecos Wilderness. We become vegetarians.
-NOVEMBER . . . We visit a friend in Tucson, AZ, then drive to Crescent City and the Northwest Coast. The beautiful weather is over, and the rains have begun. We don't stay long.
-DECEMBER . . . We return to Pennsylvania, and live out of our car in the Philidelphia area while Patty works at a restaurant. We sleep in parking lots and rest stops. It's the coldest December on record for the area, with the wind chill it's -10.



2001
-
JANUARY . . . We head south for warmth, try the Chatooga area of South Carolina, then camp in the woods of northern Florida.
-
FEBRUARY - JUNE . . . We live in Asheville, NC, in the middle of the Southern Appalachains. We spend nearly every day out on the trails, hiking, and learning plants.
-
JULY . . . We get mountain bikes for touring, and bike the Blue Ridge Parkway to the Smokies.
-
AUGUST . . . We camp in the Weminuche Wilderness of southwest Colorado, and do a 6 day fast.
-
SEPTEMBER . . . We stay in Loveland, Colorado with a friend. We climb Long's Peak on the day after 9/11. We then drive to Vermont, and look for a place to live in the Burlington area.
-
OCTOBER - DECEMBER . . . We rent a house in Tucson, AZ, and try to become raw fooders.

2002
-
JANUARY . . . We hike in to Jordan Hot Springs in the Gila.
-
FEBRUARY . . . We bike in to Turkey Creek Hot Springs. We stash our bikes near the mouth of the creek, and hike the rest of the way. Many of the pools have been ruined from floods.
-
MARCH . . . We go to Vermont again, this time the Bennington area of southern Vermont. It's way too cold.
-
APRIL - JULY . . . We rent a house in Asheville, NC again. This time we have a large garden, and become 100% raw fooders. Every day I'm out hiking the trails gathering wild edible plants.
-
AUGUST . . . We cash out all our credit cards, and move up to Shining Rocks Wilderness in the Southern Appalachians, camping at over 5,000 feet. There are blueberry fields everywhere, and blackberry, and wild cherries. Not only are we mono-raw fooders now, much of our food is wild. I hike barefoot everywhere. We bathe in the pool below the falls.
-SEPTEMBER . . . We visit a friend in Atlanta, and on a night full of alcohol I break my foot in 3 places. I'm told I'll be crippled with arthritis, and ultimately never walk again.
-OCTOBER - DECEMBER . . . We rent a furnished condo in Tucson, AZ. I cut my cast off prematurely with tin snips.

2003
-JANUARY . . . We camp off the Gila River at Box Canyon, just up from the city of Gila. I'm still on crutches. We meet Jabber-Mike, and Vet-Mike, and Doug. We trade juniper berries for Doug's black walnuts. We're still 100% raw fooders, and Doug teaches me the local plants.
-FEBRUARY - MARCH . . . We return to Atlanta for free medical care so I can learn how to walk again. PT is hell.
-APRIL - MAY . . . We go back to the Gila and camp off the Gila River. We gather cattail, nettle, primrose flowers, and harvest prickly pear pads. We find the most perfect hot spring in all of the Gila, man-made, at Brock Canyon.
-JUNE . . . We fall off our raw food diet, and camp up at Black Balsam again off the Shining Rock Wilderness. We gather wild strawberries. We then camp above the Amicalola Falls in north Georgia for 2 weeks. We become committed to the idea of buying land.
-JULY - SEPTEMBER . . . We live in Woodstock, GA, just north of Atlanta. I do a 14 day water fast.
-OCTOBER . . . We paddle Fontana Lake in the Smokies, on our way to Nova Scotia. We find a great camp and gather wild persimmons, but ultimately abandon the trip.
-NOVEMBER . . . We go back to camping off the Gila River at Brock Canyon. I begin 'June'. We run totally out of money, and gather and clean 10lbs of desert willow seed to sell to a local guy in Gila. He gives us $20/lb, and we use the money to get back to Georgia.

2004
-JANUARY . . . We go to north Florida, and check out the sinks, and the aquifer springs, and paddle the Wacissa River.
-FEBRUARY . . . We paddle the Suwanee River in North Florida. Patty makes a basket out of greenbriar.
-MARCH . . . We camp in the pine flats of Apalachicola National Forest. We make baskets from grapevine, cordage from the retting of Spanish Moss, and a mat from palmetto. We camp here for 3 weeks with no money while we wait for our tax refund. We're 100% raw fooders again.
-APRIL . . . We camp off Owl Creek and paddle the river. There are free hot showers in a nearby campground. There's a great trail with wild blueberry, and we gather the new shoots of bracken. We later camp in Tate's Hell.
-MAY . . . We camp at Sand Creek in the Ocala National Forest, an hour east of Atlanta. I gather cattail in the Beaver Pond. I edit and type up the 'June' book at a nearby library for a literary agent.
-JUNE . . . We drive out to Oregon and camp off the Illinois River in the Siskiyous.
-JULY . . . We camp in the Adirondacks off Jones Pond.
-AUGUST . . . We camp in the Jemez Region of northern New Mexico. We gather wild mushrooms, and sell lobster mushrooms to chefs in Sante Fe. We camp at San Antonio Hot Springs for a week, and Big Tesuque Campground outside Sante Fe.
-SEPTEMBER . . . We go back to the Gila and camp at Brock Canyon. We gather desert willow seed again. We swim and play games in the river. We see tarantulas. I gather prickly pear fruit in baskets we've made from willow. We take a trip up to Turkey Creek Hot Springs.
-OCTOBER . . . We camp in the Oconee National Forest southeast of Atlanta, under persimmon trees in a field. We also camp up on Pigeon Mountain near Rocktown.
-NOVEMBER - JANUARY . . . We live in Atlanta.

2005
-FEBRUARY - MARCH . . . We move to Portland Oregon. We paddle the Wilamette River, and go to the nude beach at Sauvie Island, just after Mt. St. Helens erupted.
-APRIL . . . We return to north Florida looking for land to buy. Everywhere is flooded, and there's been a lot of damage from the previous hurricane.
-MAY . . . We camp up on Pigeon Mtn. The weather's perfect, and there's more wild food here than anywhere else.
-JUNE . . . We go to Arizona, and camp in the Hannigan area of Apache National Forest. We ultimately try to get back out to Oregon, but car problems make it not possible.
-JULY . . . We return to Pigeon Mtn in Georgia. The blackberries are in.
-AUGUST . . . We stay in a campground off the ocean in Jacksonville, Florida, while we look for jobs and a place to live.
-
SEPTEMBER . . . We move back to Atlanta.
-
OCTOBER . . . We abandon the jeep with 320,000 miles in a motel parking lot.

2006
-MARCH . . . the girls and I camp up at Pigeon Mtn, in a secret camp we've made.
-JUNE . . . the girls and I go back to Pigeon and camp longer, this time starting a wigwam from red maple saplings, muscadine vines, and grass I collect naked in the field with a small knife.
-AUGUST . . . the girls and I camp up at Graveyard Fields off the Blue Ridge Parkway. Every day we gather the wild blueberries and swim in the pool beneath the falls. We hike all the trails, and establish a secret camp in a grove of juneberries.


2007
-FEBRUARY . . . We look at property in north Florida.
-MARCH . . . We look at property in Asheville, NC.
-JUNE . . . We look at the 10 acres in Sunbright, and make an offer.
-AUGUST . . . We close on the Sunbright property, and take the kids to Disneyworld.
-OCTOBER . . . The girls and I camp up on the property in Sunbright, and clean up the trash from the fire. I build a fireplace out of old concrete blocks.

2008
-APRIL - SEPTEMBER . . . The girls and I camp up on the property. We clean out the rest of the trash, build a compost bin for humanure, plant the garden, and fruit trees, I dig the swales, do the stone foundation for the barn, and the stem wall, and the post and beam frame. We build a pad for the gazebo.

2009
-APRIL - JULY . . . The girls and I camp up on the property again. We build the 2 story cabin from scratch, plant another garden, and more fruiting trees and shrubs.
-OCTOBER . . . I put the upper story floor in the barn.
-NOVEMBER . . . The girls and I begin building the barn roof.