About Curtis Swartzentruber

Curtis Swartzentruber is a software developer and homesteader in New Haven Vermont. He and his wife Kristin bought a 10 acre property in 2013 and are currently attempting to wrangle it into a small hobby farm. Other than gardening and farm-related hobbies, Curtis enjoys playing music (guitar, bass, mandolin), homebrewing, cooking, dabbling in charcuterie and playing with his sons Ezra and Zeke.

Deck Project: Installing the footings

As I’ve mentioned, our big non-gardening project this year is rebuilding our back deck. Today we got the construction process started with the installation of our footings.

IMG_20170512_101156-01

My contractor Rich had mentioned the idea of helical screw piles to me as an alternative to the typical concrete tube footings. Did a little research and it did seem like a good fit and we have a local franchise for GoliathTech in Bristol. Basically they are a giant screw that are turned into the ground with a special attachment on an excavator. They have a torque measurement that helps them see if they are getting enough holding power in the spot and they go plenty deep enough to take care of getting below the frost line. Once in, they are almost impossible to pull out without using the same equipment and even the small ones that I got are rated at about 5000 lbs. load bearing each. SunCommon, the company that installed our solar, is now using screw piles for all of their panel installations.

IMG_20170512_101929-01

After getting some additional information and rough quotes, it seemed like a good fit and so today we had them come out and install the five footings we need for our deck design.

I have to say I’ve been very pleased with the process and there are a bunch of advantages to me over the traditional concrete footing method

  • No excavation needed
  • No heavy equipment tearing up your yard (the Kubota they use is on treads and is small enough to fit through a 38” wide space)
  • No trying to get a concrete mixer out and all the associated time involved with concrete. I guess you could also get pre-filled tubes, but then your excavation has to be even more spot on and you are digging 4 foot plus holes.
  • It’s fast, only took about an hour and a half and we could build on it today if we wanted.
  • It’s actually cheaper, at least for what I needed for my project.
  • The hardware gives you about 6” of adjustability up and down.
  • Less movement in the ground
  • Longer lasting and more durable.

If you are thinking of building a deck or dock or something like that, it’s probably worth considering these. I may look at them for a small animal shed we want to build next year for goats and sheep.

Couple more shots showing how they screw these in, how long the screws are and how they check the level the whole time.

IMG_20170512_101253-01

 

IMG_20170512_101209-01

Baby chicks!

 

 

IMG_20170508_073152-01

We picked up six baby chicks on Saturday. These are supposed to be females and will get some new blood into our laying flock.

Trying a couple of new breeds as well.

2 Barred Rocks (we have one barred rock and she is the nicest hen we have and the only one remaining of our original four)

2 New Hampshire Reds

1 Buff Orpington

1 Silver-laced Wyandotte (we have a golden-laced and she is really pretty)

Quick Spring Update

Lots of life stuff to deal with so far this year, but I wanted to just get a few notes in about what we’re working on this spring. So far it’s been very wet, so I think it’s going to take a bit longer to get certain things in the ground than last year. That being said, the soil structure in the garden continues to improve, so that helps.

Last week we planted probably the last larger order of fruit trees in the orchard. At this point there are probably enough trees out there. Still a chance we’ll include some additional fruit trees in a food forest/ wind break or something elsewhere on the property, but we’ll see. This year we planted the following:

  • Ashmead’s Kernel – great heirloom, good for cider, drying, etc.
  • Chisel Jersey – this one isn’t much use for anything but cider
  • Dabinett – another English cider apple, we already have one of these started from a previous year. Makes an amazing single varietal cider.
  • Golden Hornet – cool crab apple type with yellow fruit, very nice in the spring as well and a great pollinator
  • Redfield – another cider apple
  • Spitzenburg Esopus – second one of these as well, the first one we planted is probably one of our best trees so far. This is one of the varieties Thomas Jefferson was infatuated with.
  • Mount Royal Plum – first plum tree, hardy to zone 3, curious how this one does
  • Northstar Cherry – not having great luck with getting cherries started, so planting another. Much more susceptible to transplant shock than apples.

 

I did a count and I think this brings us to around 30 trees, give or take. If I can get even half of these to thrive, we’ll have more fruit than we know what to do with. We’ll let you know when that happens in case you are close enough to enjoy some yourself.

Otherwise, seed starting continues to go well. Tomatoes are going gangbusters and I’m running out of room to the point that I’m already putting some extras in the greenhouse. Calculated risk as it may still get too cold, but if not they will be hardier and bigger when we transplant. Probably going to share some seedlings as well. We started some seeds Kristin saved and got really good germination on all of them, so we’re curious to see how true to type those are. This was a bit of an experiment to see how well we could do at growing our own saved tomato seed, so this year we may be a bit more intentional to avoid cross-pollination.

We aren’t doing a ton of new things this year, but Kristin is getting more and more interested in medicinal herbs and plants so we are trying to grow a few more of those type of plants. We are also trying to get comfrey going in the orchard (non-invasive type that makes sterile seeds). Comfrey is great for all kinds of things and will outcompete some of the undesirable grasses and weeds in the orchard to eventually become a living mulch. When it gets tall, it falls over so it almost does the mulching for you. Tons of nutrients and minerals and good for the soil as well. I’m also trying to see if I can start some perennial shrubs from seed (sea buckthorn, service berry, Siberian pea shrub). This requires cold stratification (basically starting for a few months in soil in a fridge) and getting to transplant stage takes two growing seasons, so it’s a multi-year experiment.

The other big spring project is re-doing our back deck. This will be a lower deck, almost at grade (basically 1 step down to the ground). We plan to put some beds around the perimeter of that and probably some cedar planters so we can have some herbs and flowers within steps of the back door. Hope to post pictures of that process once we get started.

2017 Growing Season Awakens

Not much of a winter so far here in Vermont. A bit more snow than where we used to live in Chicago, who just had the first January and February with no measurable snow for the first time in a long time. But still a fairly mild winter. It’s been brutally cold the last few days though, so winter is not done yet.

Anyway, seed starting is well underway. Still trying to fine tune my basement seed starting setup, which in this case mainly means adding a few more lights. Otherwise I’m pretty happy with my current setup. Starting a few things a bit earlier than last year now that I have a better understanding of when and how the greenhouse plays into the mix. Basically thinking I can get even bigger and better starts than last year and potentially get stuff into the ground sooner.

This year we are going to experiment with going no-till for a bunch of reasons. After research and talking to some people who know more than me, I would just like to get away from using the tiller for anything except maybe establishing new plots. Tilling does a major destruction on soil structure and biology and basically stirs up a bunch of your nitrogen to the surface where you basically lose most of it. The other thing we’ve found is that we end up fighting weeds in the aisles by mid-summer, which is both a waste of time and takes energy away from the plants we want. Makes more sense to develop a deep mulch structure and use carbon (newspaper, cardboard) between the rows. Eventually you get a much richer, deeper soil structure with a lot of bio-diversity plus help from the mycorrhiza fungi network and the soil structure makes it much easier to pull the weeds that do germinate. That’s the theory anyway and we’re going to experiment with it. What we are doing now is too much work and we aren’t building soil fertility as fast as we want, so time to shake things up.

In other news, our lazy chickens (and one of the ducks) just FINALLY started laying again after taking a break since mid-December. And not all of them have started yet. That’s a lot of freeloading. Fine with them having a month or so break, but this has been too long. That being said, our youngest birds are about 2 years old, so not that surprising that egg production is slowing. We’re going to add some new hens to the mix this spring.

Before long it will be time to start putting cold hardy seeds in the ground, like lettuce, carrots, brassicas and peas. And maybe even some potatoes if we can get into the ground. The long range forecast isn’t showing a lot of frost after the end of March, so it will be interesting to see if we can get an earlier start this year. In Vermont every day helps.

2016 Solar Update

Just wanted to post a quick update on how our solar installation is doing. 2016 was a fantastic year for solar with lots of sun. Due to the way our statements are generated, the billing year actually runs from mid-January, so this report is for the period of 1/18/2016 – 1/17/2017.

For the year, our panels generated just over 10,000 Kwh (10231), which is amazing. Our best generation period was unexpectedly mid-August to mid-September, although it only beat mid-June to mid-July by 4 Kwh. Still, you wouldn’t expect that behavior since even in September the days are already getting significantly shorter than June.

We look to be on track to make it through the winter without using up our credits again, which basically is the goal. No electric bills with a net balance to pay at all is what you want. We are running the heat pump a lot to supplement the heat in the winter, so even with that factored in we are doing okay.

I would still love to see us get our usage down a bit, but given our large house and most of us being home all day it gets tough to pare that down much. We have pretty much entirely switched over to LED lights, which has helped. Now I just have to run interference to keep them turned off when not in use. We’re also switching more stuff to electric as well, such as trying to use rechargeable batteries whenever possible. I bought an electric string trimmer made by Ego Power that I really like. It’s super powerful, a joy to work with compared with the traditional engine varieties and gives me about a half hour of good trimming. By then my arms and shoulders are usually tired anyway. A neighbor who also has solar bought an electric chainsaw that he raves about.

The electric tools have really made huge strides and will continue to benefit from all the other innovation that is improving batteries and pushing costs down. I’m hoping my lawn mower lasts long enough that my next one of those can be fully electric, but we aren’t quite there yet. There are some coming along (like Mean Green for instance), but they are still very much first wave technology and very expensive. The electric push mowers on the other hand have been around for awhile now and seem to work fairly well. I think Ego makes one that uses the same battery as my trimmer, although it may use two batteries.

We are going to continue to look for ways to move over to electric from fossil fuels where we can. For instance, I still have a propane heater in my office since the heat doesn’t make it back here. We also have a propane clothes dryer. So we still have some areas to keep in mind. I’m also keeping a close eye on battery storage, such as the Tesla PowerWall so we could eventually go completely off-grid if we wanted. I think the prices are going to drop precipitously over the next five years though, so holding out a bit.

2016 Year In Review

Bit late getting this figured out this year, but I guess it’s still January. Similar to last year, here’s a quick bullet point list of stuff we managed to accomplish this year.

  • Poultry
    • Built a “chicken tractor” big enough for about 10-15 broilers.
    • Raised and slaughtered 15 Freedom Ranger broilers. Overall it went okay, but still debating if we want to do this every year. Not including labor and equipment (2 big expenses), our cost per pound was in the low $4 range.
    • Lost two more of our original hens. We still have “Faith” the barred rock remaining from the original Bristol 4.
    • Got 6 day old Ancona ducklings and successfully raised them to adults. Three were male and three were female, so two of the boys were redundant and went to the freezer.
    • Put automatic doors on both the chicken and duck coops. This has simplified care significantly as well as made it easier for us to leave the property in someone else’s hands for a few days.
  • Gardening
    • This was the first full growing season with the greenhouse and it made a significant difference in the size and quality of my starts. We bought very few starts from outside the property this year.
    • For the most part, an amazing gardening year. Super warm and sunny, which made for an abundance of tomatoes.
    • We added more fruit trees, 6 more raspberry plants, 25 everbearing strawberry plants and another purple asparagus bed.
    • The original raspberry plants from 2015 really came into their own this year for the most part. We got a great yield of berries.
    • Had some luck for the first time with the following this year
      • Bush Limas
      • Sweet Potatoes
      • Flint corn
      • Sweet corn
    • Standouts included
      • the aforementioned tomatoes
      • Peppers did fairly well, including sweet peppers
      • Brussel sprouts finally worked. Turned out we had been planting too late for New England.
      • Dynamite popcorn
      • Bush beans of various types (green, yellow, dry)
    • Still having trouble getting melons to work with any consistency
  • Landscape and other property work
    • Cleared an overgrown patch of original landscaping from the front yard and re-contoured the whole front yard, including the drainage ditch.
    • Rebuilt the main culvert near our house, put in a small duck pond and widened the drive over the culvert.
    • Expanded the beginnings of our windbreak
    • Reshaped the driveway and added new stone/gravel.
    • Put up a Gorilla playset for the kids.
  • Goals for 2017 include
    • Attempt to convert to a mostly no-till approach in our gardens
    • Expand the existing rear garden footprint around the greenhouse
    • More fruit trees
    • Start working on the “drift” landscaping ideas in the front yard. These are wide swaths of perennial plants and grasses in mostly organic shapes following the contour of the land.
    • Expand the windbreak and begin preparing for a more extensive hedgerow or permaculture mixed species planting on the north edge of the property. We are working with a permaculture specialist on a plan for this.
    • At least begin the planning stages for fencing in the front pasture.
    • Tear down our existing rear deck and rebuild a new one.

Soon it will be time to buy and start seeds. By the way, if you are thinking about seeds, don’t forget about my site PickAPacket.com and tell your friends. It allows you to compare prices and see varieties carried by my favorite non-GMO seed companies, including lots of heirloom, organic and open-pollinated varieties.

Windbreak Update

On Friday I worked with our tree guy again and got some more trees planted in the start of our windbreak. These are a mix of Arbor Day trees he planted on his property 8 or so years ago and some Norway Spruces from a local nursery. By the way, when Arbor Day suggests planting seedlings for a few years and then transplanting them, a few years is best. Not eight years. Not a fun job digging those up and transplanting them. But hoping they survive because they are nice trees.

WindbreakJuly2016

We hope to keep extending this windbreak area and probably will add some additional diversity such as deciduous trees, small fruiting bushes such as service berry or bush cherry and so on. We are also thinking of eventually putting in a diverse hedgerow/windbreak along the entire north/north-east border of our property that might include additional fruit and nut trees, but still trying to figure that out.

Garden and property June 2016

Here’s just a few shots of what’s going on with our gardens and rest of the property near the beginning of June. We had a mild spring that wasn’t too wet and actually got very hot towards the end of May. Just had a nice rainy day yesterday after about a week without, so everything is pretty happy at the moment.

Here’s the back garden in a couple of wide shots.

Those are potatoes in the foreground.

BackGardenJune2016

A shot from the front to show off some flowers already blooming.

BackGardenFrontJune2016

Hops are already going nuts. These poles are about 15-20’ at the top.

 

Hops2016

Here’s the front garden. Look how big the garlic is already. It’s pretty happy this year. By the way, all the green is partially due to the cover crop of buckwheat that we are leaving in place for now between rows and where we haven’t planted yet. A bit of an experiment and in some ways makes it harder to see the rows, but hoping the benefits make it worthwhile.

FrontGarden1

Here’s the orchard. A couple of the initial plantings are finally starting to show some growth.

OrchardJune2016

Here’s a similar shot from around the same time last year. Notice how much we filled in the middle section this spring.

orchard061315

And finally, another shot of the ducks at 6 weeks just for fun. They are now outside in their permanent spot, although not free ranging yet.

Ducks6Weeks

Finally some tomato starts I can work with

I’ve been trying to start my own tomatoes ever since we moved to Vermont with varying degrees of success. It’s partly because I like to grow some more obscure tomato varieties that are hard to find in the nurseries and garden centers and partly because once again I’m apparently a glutton for punishment.

greenhouse2

Tomatoes and peppers were one of the primary reasons I really wanted to invest in a greenhouse. We got one last year, but by the time we got it installed it was well after the prime tomato starting period. So I was very curious to see how much difference it made this year in the quality and size of my tomato starts. I have not been disappointed.

These greenhouse shots aren’t all tomatoes of course, there are also some peppers, eggplant and other odds and ends. But it is overflowing with tomatoes at the moment.

greenhouse3

This is probably the first year I’ve had quite a few tomato starts that actually look like something I would buy at a good nursery, both in size and health. I still started them initially in our basement under grow lights, but once it started to warm up they went in the greenhouse. There were some nights of moving them back and forth when temps once again dipped into the 20s and low 30s at night.

tomatostarts16_1

We are now starting to plant them out and I’m very happy with how many nice big plants I have and it’s only the middle of May. I also have a pipeline of additional starts in case some plants don’t take. Plus, we’ve never really had quite enough tomatoes to put away just from our own garden and end up buying extras. Hoping maybe this is the first year that isn’t the case.

tomatostarts16_2

Spring 2016 Bulbs

Planting bulbs is like a lot of gardening; an exercise in hope, planning and patience. Last fall we added a bunch more tulip, daffodil and some other bulbs to the front beds along our walkway. Despite the chickens deciding that is a prime digging area and eating some of the leaves, we are now at just about peak bloom and it’s pretty cool.

Bulbs1

Bulbs4

Bulbs3