Apple Custard Cake

Autumn is one of the most amazing times of year, in my opinion. You can literally smell it in the air. There’s a little chill, the wind picks up and makes the leaves dance, the kids head back to school, and best of all the local apples ripen!

I’ll eat a plain apple any time, day or night, but is there anything more delicious than an apple dessert?

My only complaint about apple desserts is that they tend to be really heavy in sugar. I’m not afraid to indulge my sweet tooth now and then, but I really don’t like to eat too much sugar or flour. I prefer creamy, rich desserts over sugary-sweet ones. Besides, when you add too much sugar it camouflages the natural sweetness of the apples. And really, that’s one of the most amazing things about apples. You can adjust the sweetness of your desserts by choosing different apple varieties. I have two apple trees in my yard, and this year one of them has been going absolutely bonkers. My apples are medium-sweet, so you might want to adjust this recipe if you are using a tart or super-sweet variety.


(If you’re wondering who the photographer is, my lovely oldest daughter has started an Instagram account for the blog! She is quite talented, so follow her at HomesteadFromTheGroundUp, and enjoy her pictures between blog posts!)

This apple cake recipe is my favorite way to make a baked apple dessert because it doesn’t go overboard. In fact, it uses only 1/2 cup of sugar and 1/2 cup of flour in the entire recipe!

I recently discovered silicone baking pans, and my life just hasn’t been the same since. I HATE the waste of single-use things like parchment paper, and I really don’t want to add additional calories to my food by heavily greasing pans, but I was also getting really tired of losing the bottom 1/3 of my cornbread muffins every time I made them. Finally, I broke down and ordered a set of silicone pans and muffin cups. If you haven’t tried them, I highly recommend it! The only drawback is that they aren’t very attractive, so they are not ideal for dishes that need to be served in their pans, like cobblers or shepherd’s pie.


For this recipe you will need the following ingredients:

  • 4 Apples, peeled and cut
  • 1/2 cup All-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup Sugar separated into two-1/4 cups
  • 1 Tablespoon Baking powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon Salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon Vanilla
  • 3 Eggs
  • 2 Tablespoons Oil
  • 1/3 cup Milk
  • 3 Tablespoons melted, cooled Butter
  • Spices (nutmeg, cinnamon, etc.)


The apple cutting doesn’t have to be done in any particular fashion, but I have noticed that the finished cake does serve better when the apples are cubed instead of sliced. For this reason, I cut my apples into approximately 1/2 inch cubes. Homegrown apples brown insanely fast once they’re cut. It really makes you shudder when you realize how much junk they must pump into store-bought apples to keep them from browning. Ew!


First, preheat your oven to 400 degrees F. Then, mix together all your flour, 1/4 cup of sugar, baking powder, salt, vanilla, 2 eggs, oil, and milk. You are going to wonder how in the world this is enough batter to become a cake. You are right; it isn’t going to be enough. It is going to be an amazing CUSTARD cake, though. Don’t expect this bad boy to turn out like a birthday cake. Just roll with it, though. You won’t be disappointed.


Pour your batter over your apple cubes and mix everything together. Throw everything into a baking pan and chuck it in the oven for 25 minutes.


While your custardy deliciousness is baking, mix together your remaining ingredients for the topping. You should have 1/4 cup of sugar, 1 egg, and 3 Tablespoons of melted, cooled butter left. If not, well, then, you were probably wondering what I meant when I said the batter wasn’t going to be enough. Don’t worry if you made that mistake. Your cake will still be fine.

Isn’t my mini cast iron cauldron just adorable? It’s perfect for melting butter.

When the 25 minutes is up, pull your dish out of the oven, spread the topping all over it, and throw it back in for another 10 minutes. This is also your opportunity to add any of your preferred spices. I really like this dish when it is dusted with a little nutmeg, but you can use cinnamon, cloves, vanilla sugar, allspice, or whatever your heart desires.


Here is a really important step. When the 10 minutes are up and the cake is done, pull it out of the oven and LET IT REST FOR 10 MINUTES. You need to resist the urge to poke, prod, jiggle, wiggle, slice, lick, or sniff it for at least 10 minutes. The cake needs to set. If you’re concerned about the way it looks, just remember that I warned you not to expect a birthday cake. I promise you are fine. Unless you didn’t read the directions and mixed all the ingredients together. Then you’re screwed. Kidding.

Once you have rested your custard cake for at least 10 minutes go ahead and give it a taste. It’s rich and creamy with a hint of sweetness and a gorgeous apple flavor. I like to eat it with a small scoop of vanilla ice cream or drizzled with cream.



There is very little guilt factor with this dessert, too. If you cut it into six servings, each serving has 280 calories, 5 grams of protein, 4 grams of fiber, and under 30 grams of sugar. That’s not a horrible way to kill a sweet tooth. I hope you give this recipe a try. If you do, please let me know how it came out and any additions or changes you made. I love new inspiration!

Bon appétit.

Oven-Dried Tomatoes

Are you overrun with tomatoes like we are? Did you already try the Spicy Roasted Tomato Soup recipe? Do you want a way to preserve them without making yet another jar of sauce? I don’t know about your family, but there’s only so much tomato sauce we can eat. So I decided to try to make my own “sun” dried tomatoes! Ideally, using the sun’s energy to dry them would be wonderful, but since Pennsylvania got confused and started fall weather in August this year, I will be drying ours in the oven.

This is an idea that I got from a neighbor of ours who preserves a huge harvest of Roma tomatoes this way. He dries his tomatoes and stores them in oil in the fridge. Then he can either add them to dishes, eat them plain, or blend them for pesto. We have roughly a billion jumbo cherry tomatoes, and I don’t want them to go to waste, so I am going to give it a shot.

The first thing I did was halve the tomatoes and place them cut side up on a large baking sheet. Though this layout will increase the cooking time, the thought behind it is that the juices will stay inside the tomato and become concentrated as the water evaporates instead of dripping out into the pan. I want savory dried tomatoes, not crispy tomato skins. I also like to keep all the vitamins in my food, thankyouverymuch. Then, I salted them with some Kosher salt, sprinkled them with fresh ground pepper, and let them rest while I preheated the oven.

We have a convection setting on our oven, which circulates the air to speed up cooking time without increasing the heat. Think of it as drying laundry outside. It always gets done faster when there’s a slight breeze, right? I put the oven at its lowest temperature that, for us, is 170 degrees F.


Then, I cancelled my plans for the next 12 hours…

Slow-drying them in the oven takes a long time, but I really wanted to make sure that they got to be more the chewy consistency of prunes or raisins, not stiff like beef jerky or crispy like kale chips, which can happen if you do it too hot or too fast. Keeping the juices in the tomato halves and slowly drying up the water was my goal. I checked them after four hours and again after about seven hours. Each time they were still too squishy at the bottom, so back in the oven they went. At the seven hour mark I dusted them with a little ground garlic, just to add some fun flavor. In total, they were in the oven at 170 degrees F for just over 12 hours. But these suckers look GOOD.

Once I pulled them out of the oven, I let them cool slightly and then tossed them into a lidded jar, covered them with avocado oil (you could use olive oil or another oil if you prefer), and threw them in the fridge. I had a little helper for that part.

My favorite part about this way of storing them is that the oil will slowly absorb the flavor of the tomatoes and becomes an ingredient that can be used on its own. I used avocado oil specifically because of its high smoke temperature, so I can use it to sauté veggies or fry eggs in once the tomatoes are gone. I can also soak them in the fridge for a while and just blend everything with some more garlic to make a tomato pesto.

The tomato flavor gets super concentrated when they dry, and they become as sweet as candy. I could snack on this whole jar with zero problems.

I know I promised some apple recipes, and those are coming next!

What Have We Learned So Far?

The Handyman and I both knew that the first year of our homestead plan would be a learning experience. Of course, I was secretly hoping that we would learn that we did everything perfectly, but no. We are learning the much more realistic “hard way”. As painful as it is to admit mistakes, I think it’s more painful to repeat them, so we are going to take a very hard look at what worked and what didn’t.

First, we will probably not start our own spring seeds again. Yes, it was cost-effective compared to buying seedlings from Home Depot, and our seed starter system was even cheaper than starting your own seeds from a kit. However, we’ve discovered a local woman who sells started seedlings for $0.25-.50 a piece. She sells varieties that she knows will thrive in our climate, and she starts everything in a greenhouse so by the time the ground is ready for planting her seedlings are nice and big. Until we get our own cold frame and/or greenhouse we just can’t beat her prices. This also gives us the opportunity to try several varieties of vegetables without increasing the total cost, unlike when buying seed packets. We will start our own seeds for fall plantings whenever possible, but I think our spring seed starting plans are on hold for a while.

We also learned that our garden is laughably small for the amount of people in our family. This fall the Handyman is expanding it by 10 feet on one side and 5-7 feet on the other. We were so concerned that it would be too much work that we erred on the small side. That turned out to not be the case. The rows that I formed were incredibly helpful for weeding the plants. Using a collinear hoe that the Handyman made and a “push-pull” tool that I bought from a local Mennonite hardware store made weeding a breeze. I barely ever had to even bend over, which was really helpful since I’m usually weeding while wearing a baby.

However, I did discover that while the center pathway is pretty, a perimeter path is absolutely necessary for good weed control. The only weeds I really struggled with were the ones that were creeping in from the edges. Our vining cucumber, zucchini, and tomato plants were right on the back row, and there was absolutely no room for me to get between them and the fence in order to weed. Next year the garden design will involve one perimeter path instead of a center path. The herb box will just have to find a new home somewhere else in the yard.

I learned that you have to check your zucchini plants every day. If not, then a squash that looked tiny on Tuesday will be the size of a small child by Thursday. We are going to enjoy most of our zucchini in breads this year because they’re just too big to eat any other way. And, sadly, bigger squash is not better squash. So learn from me, and keep an eye on these suckers.


We learned that some things are not worth planting. I cringe when I think about the three garden rows that were devoted to broccoli and cabbage that were attacked by caterpillars. The loss of those crops was pretty sad, but when I think about how all that space would have only yielded six or seven broccoli heads and four cabbages I get even more sad. What were we thinking?! Now that I know how many pounds of beans or melons we could get for the same square footage I feel like an idiot. Next year we are not going to bother with them.

garden labeled
WHYYYYY did I waste so much space on broccoli?!

Earlier in the spring the Handyman and I tried to prevent the various fungal issues that were plaguing our peach tree last year. The consensus on Google was that a copper fungicide was the best way to go, so we sprayed the heck out of it it just after the flowers bloomed in very early spring. We plucked off every leaf that started to show signs of peach leaf curl, and we cut off branches that were looking sickly. When the tree was heavy with growing peaches we thought we had found success! Unfortunately, right as the peaches were ripening there was a massive mold blight and we lost every single peach on the tree in a matter of days.

I consulted a local expert, and his opinion was that we should just axe the tree and plant another one in a better location. As my expert noted, peach trees really “don’t like wet feet.” Our tree is in the lowest part of the yard, pretty much at the same level with the creek across the street. The roots are probably perpetually wet. He also mentioned that in Pennsylvania most orchards replace their peach trees after five or six years. Something about our damp summer climate just isn’t conducive to a long fruiting lifespan. We’ve been in our home for four summers, and the tree was a pretty good size when we moved in, so I bet this tree is at least seven years old. Sadly, the Handyman and I are going to say goodbye to it this autumn, once the leaves have dropped.

On a positive note, our smallest apple tree seems to have really enjoyed the pruning he got back in spring. We are full of crunchy red apples! I have a few of my favorite apple recipes coming up in the next post. Apple custard cake, anyone?

The Handyman has learned that ducks are noisy. Really really noisy. I love duck quacks. I think they are hilarious. The Handyman not so much. Our ducks are hysterical, and they love to walk around the yard, marching and quacking in unison. Every few days I refill their turtle sandbox/pond and they have a splashing contest. They are a constant source of entertainment for me. The poor Handyman gets harassed every time he goes near them because he made the mistake of feeding them, so now they expect food every time they see him. I still think he will learn to love them. Welsh Harlequins are so darn pretty; how can you not love them?

So, as the garden produces its last few crops, the egg production begins to slow down, and we do a mental tally of all of the things we learned this year I think it’s safe to say that we had a successful first year. I’ll jot down a garden summary once the final veggies are gathered and we’ll figure out if we broke even. We might have lost our broccoli, but we more than made up for that in potatoes!

Thanks for following along with us on this journey.

Spicy Roasted Tomato and Basil Soup

If your gardens are behaving anything like ours is, then you are probably smothered in tomatoes. Every day we get a big basket of veggies from the garden, and right now we are benefitting from some of our neighbors being out of town for three weeks. We’ve been invited to enjoy their garden in their absence. It’s a fun daily walk up to their house to discover what we’ll get to take. It’s insane how much we are harvesting!

We love tomatoes. We eat them plain, still warm from the sun. We make salsa, bruschetta, marinara sauce, salads, and anything else you can think of. My latest favorite is a spicy roasted tomato and basil soup. It’s a foolproof soup that tastes like liquid summertime. I’m always getting compliments on it, so I thought I would share my recipe. It’s so easy a caveman could do it.

First, collect all the tomatoes you want. This is an especially good way to use those tomatoes that are getting a little wrinkly. Here’s the best part. You can slice them if you want. You can leave them whole if you want. You can use large tomatoes or small tomatoes or a combination of both. You don’t need to peel them and you don’t need to take out the seeds. It’s as simple as pulling tomatoes off the vines and throwing them into a roasting pan. I’m using my favorite, well-seasoned Pampered Chef stoneware pan that has been loved for years and years.

Garden tomatoes in a stoneware baking pan, ready for roasting!

I did end up slicing up some of my tomatoes, but it’s a completely optional step. Next, I added some more veggies. I used the following: two small onions, complete with greens; five cloves of garlic, whole; a jalapeno, seeds included; two cayenne peppers, seeds included; avocado oil, drizzled liberally; a splash of red or white wine, whatever is leftover (yes, occasionally there is some leftover); and of course salt and pepper. I just give everything a rough chop, if I feel like it. Sometimes I do; sometimes I don’t. It may or may not correspond to exactly how much wine is leftover.


Now, I like this soup spicy. If you don’t like spicy soup then I would recommend seeding the hot peppers or leaving them out completely. You could substitute chili powder or cayenne pepper flakes if you don’t have whole peppers, or even add those spices to individual bowls after the soup is done to customize the spice for each person.

Once the veggies are seasoned and ready, throw the whole thing in the oven at 400 degrees until the tomatoes are wrinkled and soggy-looking. Then add a handful of fresh basil leaves and return it to the oven for another 8-10 minutes.


Now here comes the best part. Dump the entire contents of your baking pan into a good blender, splash in a little half and half or heavy cream, and blend the heck out of it. I have a Vitamix blender, so it completely pulverizes the hot pepper seeds. This increases the heat by distributing the oil throughout the soup. If you don’t want it to kick your butt, then either remove those seeds or don’t blend it to death.


Some additional or alternate ingredients you could add would be parmesan cheese, oregano or thyme, sherry instead of wine, banana or bell peppers instead of jalapeno and cayenne, sour cream instead of half and half, or leeks instead of onions.

Once the soup is blended you should have a creamy, delicious, spicy soup that smells and tastes like summertime. I’ve eaten it hot with toast, crackers, or a grilled cheese, or served it cold as a dip for crostini.


I hope you get a chance to try this recipe, and if you do I hope you comment and tell me how you like it. I’d love to hear about any changes you make. I’m always looking for new things to try. Also, please share links to your favorite recipes for tomatoes! We are getting so many already, and the plants are just getting started.

Also, I don’t know if you noticed, but this recipe is also vegetarian! Just an earth-friendly bonus. It’s easily made vegan by substituting the half and half for something non-dairy like a soft tofu. I wouldn’t try to swap it for soy or almond milk, because that would be too thin. But tofu would be perfect!

Bon appetit!

Quickles! Two-Day Refrigerator Pickles

The pickling cucumbers are starting to ripen, and we are so excited! We are a family that can’t get enough cucumbers. My little guy makes a killer cucumber salad, my older daughter loves cucumber sandwiches on pumpernickel bread, and pretty much all of us love pickles.

Because so many of us love pickles, we decided to grow pickling cucumbers, and lo and behold those are the first ones to ripen, so I decided to try my hand at making quick pickles. Quickles!

One of my favorite things to do is to reuse things. Even when I recycle it, I still feel bad when I buy one-use products or single-serve products that have all that extra packaging. Our Costco has the most delicious jarred sliced mangos, and I covet those jars. They are huge and the wrappers are easy to remove, leaving a plain glass jar. You can even take a little rubbing alcohol and get the expiration date stamp off.


They are all over my house now, containing everything from rice to tea bags to spare change, and soon Quickles!

Did you know that cucumbers are on the Dirty Dozen list? I had no idea until recently, and I’m even more excited to be growing our own now. The Handyman likes his pickles a little bit spicy, and I like mine a little bit sweet, so I decided to try my hand at creating a sweet and sweaty Quickle recipe.

First, I went into the garden and harvested the best-looking pickling cucumbers I could find. Then I sliced them into chips, along with a carrot. You don’t need to add the carrot to this recipe, but I have a softness for pickled carrots, and it does make quite a nice aesthetic addition to the jar.


Next I made the brine. My jars are 42 ounces, but I didn’t want to fill it completely so I could have enough room to give it a good shake every once in awhile.  If you decide to follow this recipe, the total volumes might change according to your batch size, but I would keep the ratios about the same:

  • 3 cups sliced cucumbers
  • 1 medium carrot, sliced
  • 1/2 cup white vinegar
  • 2 Tbsp sugar
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp Kosher salt
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • 5 cloves of garlic, sliced
  • 1 Tbsp dried dill (use more if using fresh)

Check out those colors. Aren’t they beautiful?


Once everything is together in the jar, cover the ingredients with enough water to just submerge everything. Then just screw the lid on and shove it in the fridge for two days. Carrots and garlic tend to sink, but cucumbers tend to float, so invert the jar a few times a day to make sure everything spends equal time in the brine.

I have picky pickle-eaters in my house, and these bad boys were a huge hit. I would not label these as spicy pickles, because even my little guy could eat them, so if you want more heat add more peppers. Next time I’m going to try some variations with horseradish and our fresh hot peppers when they’re ripe.

Bon appetit!

Two-day refrigerator pickles. Quickles!

Triumphs and Frustrations

It’s been a crazy couple of weeks here on the Homestead. Our garden is growing, our chickens are laying, the sun is shining, and things are moving right along.

The vegetable garden is doing better than we even hoped. We were forced to make a few changes here and there, but overall we are very proud of our first serious attempt at vegetable gardening. The beans seeds that we planted were just decimated by insects initially. Over half of the seedlings’ cotyledons were eaten by something, and we were left with these sad little stumps. You can see about four in these pictures that are just stem. Poor little guys. I debated pulling them out and planting new seeds, but we decided to just see if they could recover.

And they did! I couldn’t believe that a poor little plant that was nothing but stem could make a comeback, but out of all the seeds we planted only one did not make it. That’s not bad considering the germination rate of these bean seeds is supposedly in the 70-80% range. Of course, I was kind of banking on that rate of germination so that I could have staggered plants, since all the beans will ripen at the same time on these plants. Oh well, I guess we’ll have a busy weekend of preserving them all when they’re ready. Here are the beans now:

And the potatoes, oh my word the potatoes. If you ever want to feel accomplished as a gardener, then plant potatoes. These things grow incredibly fast. I dug deep trenches in which to plant them, and then as the greens popped up I slowly buried them with soil until they were little hills instead of garden rows. This method is supposed to maximize the number of potatoes per plant.

Everything is growing fantastically, but we are being hit with the most frustrating infestation of caterpillars on our cabbage and broccoli. Every morning I go out and pick off about 15-20 of the little buggers. They’re decimating the leaves of the broccoli, and now I can see them in the beginnings of the cabbage heads. It’s quite frustrating.

There are two kinds of caterpillars: fat green ones that like to sit on the tops of the leaves, and small brown and tan ones that hide out on the underside of the leaves. We tried initially to use an organic pesticide/fungicide/miticide by Garden Safe, but I can tell you right now that stuff is worthless. Absolute junk. It doesn’t keep anything away, and I swear I saw aphids doing the backstroke in puddles of it. Our current method of treatment is a homemade combination of 2 T of Dr Bronner’s peppermint castile soap, 2 T of cayenne pepper hot sauce, and we filled a 24 ounce spray bottle the rest of the way with water. So far, it seems to be helping, but I think we may have waited too long before switching away from the worthless Garden Safe spray. I will update if there are any changes, but at this point we are seriously considering yanking the cabbage and planting something else while there is still time.

Also, our beet seeds just really never took off. They grew as expected for the first couple of weeks, and then they just stopped growing, the stems got flimsy, and a few of them just withered away. We spoke to a local garden center owner and she told us that we could give them more time, but suggested that we dig up just one to see what was happening below ground. Well, I did, and it wasn’t great. The Handyman and I decided to go ahead and pull the remaining beet seedlings and replace them with something else. With our kids in mind, we decided to plant cantaloupe. They were disappointed when we told them we weren’t going to add any melons to our garden this year, so we decided to surprise them with two varieties. And I know the chickens will love eating the leftover rinds and seeds.

Other than that, though, the garden is just spectacular. We’ve harvested a few heads of lettuce already for salads and wraps, and the pickling cucumber vines are really taking off. We have squash blossoms and baby zucchini squash too, and little broccoli heads. Also, and this may sound silly, I didn’t realize that even the blossoms on eggplants are purple. How cute is that?

In other exciting news, the chickens have started laying eggs! Well, two of them have, anyway. My favorite chicken, Edith, was the first one, followed quickly by Beatrix. I can actually tell those two apart from the rest of the chickens now, because Edith has a whiter butt and Beatrix is the only other chicken with a really red comb. Once the rest are laying I think she will get lost in the bunch. But for now, I can pick her out of a line-up. The first few eggs from both chickens were so adorable and cute, and the very first ones had double yolks. I’m very excited to have fresh eggs now, but I need some of these other freeloaders to start pulling their weight. I’ve got five hungry mouths to feed; two eggs a day is not gonna cut it.


And in other, even more exciting news … my ducks have returned!!!

Molly and Jenny have returned from their extended vacation across the street in the Perkiomen Creek. I was correct, as it turns out, that they just ran away after being scared by the Handyman running the tractor. Then, while they were seeking refuge in the creek, a neighbor of ours thought they were particularly gorgeous (which they are) and decided to start feeding them. I guess they never felt compelled to go home. We found them while walking in the creek two days ago. I felt terribly bad pulling them from their creekside home, but as domestic ducks that can’t fly I don’t think they really stand much of a chance in the long-term. While they might not have been happy to return, they are safer now and that makes me happy.


However, there is a new duck problem. I was so depressed about my missing ducks, and after four weeks with no sign of them except some faint quacking (which I had finally convinced myself was just the beating of the hideous heart) I decided to get some more ducklings and start again. When I went to the breeder this time, he had a few males that were going to be euthanized if they didn’t get homes, because male ducks are much harder to sell, so I made an impulsive decision to get one male as well. So about two weeks ago I brought home three ducklings. Meet Jack, Chrissy, and Janet.

But now I have FIVE DUCKS!!

It’s a good thing we made our chicken run so large. Five ducks, sheesh! Good thing they are freaking adorable.

So I hope everyone is enjoying their early summer gardening, and I would appreciate any tips on removing cabbage caterpillar infestations. These things have me losing my damn mind.

What’s New on the Homestead

So it’s been awhile since our last project was completed, and things have been going smoothly for the most part. We haven’t done anything major, but have stayed pretty much constantly busy. Have you ever had one of those weeks (or two or three) where you feel like you never sat down but you can’t put your finger on what exactly you have accomplished? Yeah, that was us for the last couple of weeks. It feels nice to get some of that little stuff checked off the To Do list, but it’s not quite as satisfying as completing a large project.

One of the things I have been really needing for a long time is a place to keep my aprons. They’ve been cluttering up my entry way for what seems like an eternity. I never wanted to tuck them away out of sight, because they’re used just about daily, but I also was getting pretty tired of seeing them draped over the light switch. So I asked the Handyman to hook me up with a little place to hang them. He found a scrap piece of old barn wood and I scrounged up some cool looking drawer pulls at Hobby Lobby. One of the walls of our entryway is the exposed stone from the original exterior wall of the farmhouse, so that’s not a great place to hang things. The other wall is stucco over stone, which isn’t much better, but with his hammer drill and some patience the Handyman was able to make it happen. Cost: around $4.


I don’t like things to be too matchy-matchy, so this eclectic combination is perfect for me. The middle knob is a bit too small for my current purse, so for now it’s holding this gorgeous hand-painted hairy woodpecker sign that is painted on slate. And flanking that are my two aprons: the Roo Apron that I love, love, love, and my chicken apron. Oh guess what!! The Roo is now available in just a waist apron! It’s called … wait for it … the Joey! How adorable is that? I’ll be ordering one soon, so watch for another review post!

The chickens are doing great. They’re growing like crazy things, and eating up a storm. The chicken run is working out perfectly. They get a little morning sun in the back area, but are shaded during the hot part of the day. They love getting my kitchen scraps and the weeds I pull out of the garden. These girls can decimate a watermelon rind in about two minutes. I have also started landscaping the run a little bit, starting with some rhubarb! You can’t be a Pennsylvania resident without rhubarb plants in your yard. I will post pics of the landscaping when it’s all done.

Everything is starting to bloom here on the Homestead. I can’t believe all the flowers and baby fruits that I’m starting to see! Blueberries! It will be time to cover those soon, or we will have no blueberries and very fat birds. Honestly, I am so relieved to see that we have peaches and apples growing on our trees. It’s always scary when you have to prune so much dead or diseased wood off a tree like we did. We have been keeping a close eye on the leaves, and so far have had to remove several dozen that were showing signs of peach leaf curl. It doesn’t appear to be spreading any more, though, so that’s great news! Maybe there will actually be a post on making peach preserves this year. And it is so wonderful to see my earliest flowers starting to pop up. The miniature roses opened just this morning, and though they are small they pack a lot of color in their little blossoms.

In the next few weeks I expect to see blooms on lots more things, especially in my perennial garden. I have so many plants: bee balm, lemon balm, gooseneck loosestrife, evening primrose, firecracker vine, moonflower, hyacinth bean, false sunflower, penstemon, echinacea, rudbeckia, coral bells, black adder, mountain laurel, sarsaparilla, astilbe, lily of the valley, peony, rose of sharon, and hydrangea. I love spring! I try to keep a good assortment of native plants around because it helps the local bee population, and then something native is blooming for them all season long. I’d love to start keeping bees as part of our Homestead one day.

The vegetable garden is coming along too. The Handyman constructed a trellis for the climbing cucumbers, zucchini, and tomatoes using some scrap pipe from a plumbing job and some cord. I plan to support the vines with garden ties as they get bigger. The potato plants are popping up so fast. They really keep me on my toes, because every day I have to pile more soil on them so they are able to grow more potatoes. Next year I will trench them even deeper.


It’s hard to notice any changes when you see everything daily, but comparing them side-by-side makes it so obvious how much everything is growing!

Since we planted everything we have had the foggiest, rainiest, most overcast couple of weeks that I can ever remember having. It has been downright pathetic. This poor garden has had plenty of rain, but hardly any sun. Hopefully these last few sunshiney days and the nice weekend we have forecasted will give these little guys a nice boost.

In other, sadder news: We had our first big failure. Our ducks are gone. The Handyman was mowing the lawn while they were free-ranging (NO that’s not what happened!) and it must have startled them because they took off running and we haven’t seen them since. I am distraught. We live next to a pretty decent sized creek with plenty of riparian zone for them to hide in, and every so often I swear I hear them quacking from over there, but they just won’t come home. I’ve tried banging their food container, splashing in their wading pool, and doing everything I can think of to entice them to come back. The vegetation is too thick to try and track them down and catch them. I was optimistic that they’d get hungry and come home, but I guess the creek is just too inviting. With every passing day I think the likelihood of them coming back is getting smaller and smaller. I miss them. I will update if anything changes.


400 Square Foot Vegetable Garden Layout

Lots of things need to be considered when planning a garden. Not only do you need to have adequate soil, water, and sun, but you have to plant things in just the right place. Some plants need lots of sun, but if you live in a very hot climate they can’t handle afternoon sun. Some plants need shade, but filtered shade, not complete shade. Some plants are just buttheads and need to be isolated or they’ll take over (I’m talking about you, mint). If you buy indeterminate tomatoes or vining cucumbers then not only do you have to consider how you will support them as they climb, but you also have to place them in an area where they won’t grow up and shade nearby plants. Basically, it’s not a simple process. But fortunately, it’s not an impossible process either.

This is my first time doing honest-to-goodness, in-the-ground vegetable growing. I can grow some killer peppers and tomatoes in containers, and my herbs have done alright over the years. But I’ve never done a vegetable garden where the plants go straight in the ground. The side-effect of being a renter for so many years, I guess. So I have to plan this all out from the beginning. Time to pull out the stuff I learned in all those botany classes.

We started with a garden plan borrowed from the back of Small Plot High Yield Gardening called the 400-Square-Foot Soup Garden. This garden plan has a great selection of vegetables for cooking, like beets, beans, broccoli, potatoes, celery, carrots, onions, etc. Originally we were going to follow this plan almost to a T, until we spoke to Dax at Beets Workin’ Farm. He basically warned us against spending much time and energy trying to grow celery and carrots. Ok, so we scratched those two things off the list. We also wanted to swap spinach out for lettuce, since we eat a lot more lettuce, and decided to do more lettuce instead of peas. Did I mention we eat a lot of lettuce? We also swapped out sorrel and parsley for lots of hot peppers. The Handyman loves hot sauce, and makes a few types of his own, so we wanted to make sure we had plenty of hot peppers to use. So, basically we kept the layout of the rows along with the herb garden in the center of the path, but the varieties we planted are quite different so we had to reassess where to place everything.

Beets, which are a family favorite, do extremely well when planted next to bush beans and potatoes but far away from pole beans. Cucumbers like being next to cabbage and broccoli. Eggplant likes peppers. Peppers like tomatoes. Tomatoes like peppers, but shouldn’t be next to potatoes, because they both attract the same pests. And pretty much everything in the garden benefits from having marigolds around. Marigolds repel pests, and the chickens can eat the spent blossoms to enrich the color of their egg yolks.

So, after a lot of drawing, erasing, re-drawing, crumpling, muttering, and grumbling, I finally came up with a layout that will keep things apart that need to be apart, keep things near that like to be near, keep things east that grow quite tall, and protect things that are more sensitive. My lettuce is currently set to get strong afternoon sun, but I am planning on making shade cloth tents for those three rows, so hopefully I can still grow it there.

And then we planted everything! That was the best part. I love sinking my hands in the soil.

garden labeled

box labeled

It was Mother’s Day this past weekend, and my kids knew exactly what to make for me. Garden markers! The Handyman cut them some pieces of wood, and my oldest daughter helped orchestrate a painting party for everyone to make some signs. I love homemade things, and I especially love mis-matchy things. If things look too neat and orderly I start to get a little claustrophobic. I like an eclectic look. These lovely signs are a perfect addition to our garden and a great visual representation of the unique personalities each of my kids have.


In addition to the things we started from seed, we purchased the following seedlings from our local nursery:

  • hot peppers
  • bell peppers
  • cucumbers
  • zucchini
  • eggplant
  • purple cabbage
  • lettuce
  • mint
  • chives

The reason we purchased some things instead of growing them was purely a financial decision. We knew we wanted a lot of variety in our hot peppers, so to buy 6-7 different seed packets only to grow 1-2 plants of each variety just doesn’t make sense. We also knew we only wanted one or two zucchini and eggplant plants. When seed packets are a few dollars a piece, and your local nursery sells seedlings at 50 cents a piece, the math isn’t difficult to do. I also ended up buying two purple cabbage seedlings on impulse, because I remembered how much I love the spicy addition to my salads. Finally, my mint and chive seeds never germinated. Still not sure why.

Sad mint and chives are sad

One thing I was trying to avoid, too, by buying some things and starting others, was having everything ready for harvest at the exact same time. The bush beans, for example, all ripen together. So if I plant 15 bean seedlings in my garden at the same time then I will have ten thousand beans at once. However, bean seeds only have about a 70% germination rate, and a germination period of about 10-14 days. So, I plant my seeds, two weeks later I plant more where the bald spots are, and now I have naturally staggered bean plants. Same with the lettuce. I bought green leaf lettuce that can be harvested in bits or the whole head. As it matures, I will take outer leaves from some of the heads, allowing the inner leaves to keep growing and growing, and some I will head completely. Then I will replace those heads with lettuce seeds and start the process over again. This will also keep us from getting bored by letting us swap out lettuce varieties throughout the season. Haha … letting us … let us … lettuce. (Ok, I’m getting giddy, time for bed).

Here it is! The finished garden! (Well, technically the potatoes weren’t planted at the time this picture was taken, but close enough!)

A few things we learned through the seed-starting process will hopefully help us next year. First of all, we believe we need an additional grow light in the basement. We didn’t have anything get leggy or lean, but we do feel like we could have had a better arrangement downstairs if we had more light. I also didn’t thin my seedlings. It made me quite nervous to decide which seedling was going to live and which would become chicken food, and I was worried I would pick the wrong one. Then I had this wacky idea that I could just separate the seedlings right before planting and have double the plants. Well, that was stupid and I know that now. I was only successful in separating one of my seedling sets. The rest ended up getting thinned out anyway, only the plants were bigger so I felt even worse. Next year I will thin! I promise!

Another thing that will hopefully be different next year is the starting time. We were starting from scratch this year, and we had to wait for the ground to thaw enough for us to work the soil before we could do anything. Even the silage tarp couldn’t go on until we were able to take off the first layer of grass. Next year we can put cold-tolerant plants out much earlier than we could this year, because the garden will be ready. Also, we can plant garlic this fall and have garlic in the garden next spring! Lots of things can be started earlier. The Handyman wants to build us a cold frame, too, so hopefully we can extend our growing season in both directions. I am going to spend this winter doing the research to figure out how best to get two harvests out of this garden next year.


Our 20 x 20 Vegetable Garden

So a few posts back I updated you on our spring activities. The Handyman and I broke ground on our 20′ x 20′ vegetable garden and we put down a silage tarp to do several things: kill off the remaining grass, warm up the soil, and draw up the earthworms for some all-natural aeration and decomposition. The silage tarp remained on the garden plot for about a month, and boy did it work!

The grass is completely dead, there are visible holes from the worms, and it was easy to feel how much warmer the ground was just by sticking your hand into the soil. That little trick saved us a LOT of work!

Every year the Handyman takes our shredded leaves and grass clippings in the fall over to a pile in our neighbors’ field. They let us borrow their wonderful tractor with a vacuum attachment on it that just mulches and sucks those things right up. Now that they’ve been sitting for a few years getting nice and composted, we want our leaves and grass back!

I’m not a compost expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I do know that good compost is made from a mixture of brown and green vegetation. Compost from just dead leaves will be nitrogen-poor and take years to decompose. The addition of a “green” (like lawn clippings) adds nitrogen and speeds up the composting process. That said, our compost probably still could have used another year. In the future, we are going to be more conscientious about stirring it, and possibly even add another nitrogen source. I bet we’ll have plenty of chicken manure! Still, even partially decomposed leaf compost attracts worms, and worms leave worm castings, which is fertilizer gold. It can also help to hold moisture in the ground, similar to how mulch works. So even though it’s not completely composted, we decided to go ahead and dump it on and mix it with the top few inches of soil. We even got the kids to help.

We purposely only went down a few inches into the soil to not bring up buried weed seeds or disturb the natural layers of soil. Ideally we would have used a broadfork instead of using a tiller at all, but since they run around $300 we decided to go with a more economical approach this year. The Handyman has plans to construct his own broadfork in the future. Did I mention that it was raining the entire day we did this? Baby Cakes was enjoying watching the tilling from underneath the umbrella.


The next step was putting up the fencing. We are using the same 6′ tall 2″ poultry netting that we used for the chicken run. Buying it in bulk really saved us some money. It will be buried in the soil about a foot out from the edge of the fence, just how we did the chicken run. It won’t keep everything out, but it will deter some of the lazier critters. We are also using some more landscape timbers instead of 4×4 posts. They are considerably cheaper, and I really prefer the rustic look that they add. We also got some free labor from Matt, one of the Handyman’s friends. He dug the holes for the landscape timbers to go in. Better him than me!

Here’s Matt, hard at work digging holes.

On a note totally unrelated to the fact that Matt was drinking beer while digging, a few of the timbers are … slightly … off. Only a foot … or two. But we now have a door we could drive the tractor through, so I guess that’s a plus.


While Matt and the Handyman were doing all the heavy lifting, I decided to go ahead and make my garden rows. Taking the advice I got from Dax, I decided to make my garden match my tools. The rows are about two feet wide, which seems to be pretty standard for a small garden like ours, and the space between rows is exactly as wide as our rake. It’s not an exact science, but I can definitely see how taking the time to match to your tools will save time and energy in the long run.

I got to see what it was like to have an audience while working. Look at all these big strong guys watching me do the work. No one is even pretending to help! I guess that’s how the Handyman usually feels, huh?

I ended up making a path down the middle, going around the pallet wood herb planter that the Handyman made me for Valentine’s Day this year, that split our eight 20′ rows into sixteen 9′ rows. The rows run north-to-south, so the sun will rise at the back of the garden, and the front will get the afternoon sun. I like this layout because it allows me to better arrange the plants so that the tall ones won’t shade the short ones. My indeterminate tomatoes will go along the back row, for example, so that they’ll get lots of sun without acting as a screen. I want to be able to control the shade my plants get, so the default is to give them all full sun. Soon I will be building shade cloth tents to protect some of the more sensitive plants from that hot afternoon sun as we progress into summer. My goal is to be able to grow lettuce all season long.


So it was a lot of hard work, mostly by the Handyman, but it is finally finished! The plants we started from seed have been in the garage hardening off, getting ready to be transplanted. Mother’s Day is when my local expert tells me it’s safe to plant in the ground. I can hardly wait!

I am so excited for my finished garden. It’s funny, because the Handyman and I were so concerned that we were getting in over our heads with a 20′ x 20′ garden, but now that we see it we wish it was bigger! Luckily the Handyman thought ahead, and put it where it will be easy to expand it another 10 feet next year.

The next few projects will be planting our vegetables, running water out to the workshop and/or building a rainwater irrigation system, painting garden markers with the kids, building a duck house, and possibly another giveaway! Stay tuned!