Late Spring Update from the Homestead, Part II

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By mid-April, spring was in full swing, and I began to think again of working in the woods.  The cleared area around the house, in the shape of an egg in profile, with the fat end uphill and to the south and the small end to the north reaching to the lake, the yard if you will, totals between 2.5 and 3 acres.  Surrounded by old-growth trees, American Beech, Sugar Maple, and Tuliptree dominate, as well as some more recent introductions, 20 to 25 crab apples, and several willows closer to water’s edge.  It seems the forest would overtake the yard in just a few short years were the property to be abandoned.  Occasionally, it adds up over time, trees would fall, or branches would break off and fall into the yard, for a variety of reasons.  Since none of the woods was being put to directly productive use, the idea seemed to be to make the “problem” go away; the result of clean-up of the dead fall being large piles, 3 to 4 feet high, of brush and larger branches and main stems having been dragged just into the forest, and surrounding the clearing more or less completely, anywhere from at the yard’s edge to 20 feet into the forest.  I have made it a mission to deal with the piles more effectively.  Specifically, anything that is dry and 1 to 3 inches in diameter is used as stick fuel, green and 3 inches and less in diameter is chipped for use as mulch or on pathways, 3 to 4 inches in diameter and larger is bucked and split for firewood.  Odd-shaped pieces in the larger diameters are set aside for use in the fire pit, wood too rotted for use as fuel is set aside for use in Hügelkultur.  Virtually all of the wood can be reused in one form or another; waste not, want not.

Last year I acquired a Husqvarna Rancher 460 chainsaw (here is where you channel Dr. Tim “Tim the Tool Man” Taylor’s grunting), a Gränsfors Bruks Large Splitting Maul (imagine Schwarzenegger as John Matrix walking out of the woods with a log over his left shoulder in “Commando,” and cue more grunting), and a DR 16 hp wood chipper (think “Fargo.”)  All of these tools are basic necessities in forest management.  I bought the chainsaw new, and it has performed flawlessly, as should be expected.  The splitting maul, well, it’s pretty hard for it not to work, so long as you can swing it.  Having said that, Gränsfors Bruks has perfected the splitting maul in design and manufacture; it is truly the standard by which all others are measured.  The DR I bought used, barely used, though it is about 10 years old.  When I bought it the seller had trouble getting it to run for any length of time, and we ended up having to drain and replace the gas and clean the fuel filter before it would run continuously.  I used it last summer and fall without incident.

DR Wood Chipper Model C163 on day of purchase

Fast forward to this spring, and I could not get the machine to run for over a minute without dying, almost as if I had turned it off.  I will not bore you with the details, suffice it to say I was in and out of the carburetor times to numerous to count.  It was indeed a fuel problem, the fuel had “gummed up” over the winter.  I had treated the gasoline with Sta-bil, which should have prevented the formation of gum and varnish, and allowed me to avoid draining the system, but alas, such was not the case.  The bottom of the float bowl was covered with a substance that I can best describe as looking like custard, or better yet custard-colored small curd cottage cheese, and the fuel metering main jet was completely obstructed.  (Break out the carb cleaner, rags, etc.)

I experienced this view all too often during the chipper
repair process.

And, I had to blow air back through the fuel line and into the fuel tank, dislodging more gum from nooks and crannies (those are technical terms for you newbies) inside the fuel tank, and drain and replace the fuel.  I received some good advice from Dennis Goss, which led to the blowing of air into the fuel tank, thereby removing a blockage which proved to be the last piece of the chipper dysfunction puzzle.  I also replaced a broken PVC (Positive Crankcase Ventilation) hose between the crankcase and air cleaner, and the float needle, because its “rubber” sealing surface had rotted off.  That all sounds simple enough, and naturally I wasted the better part of three or four days over the course of two weeks making the repairs.  Lesson #1 learned:  Drain the fuel tank and run the carburetor dry before storing for the winter.  Lesson #2 learned, again: It takes a lot less time to do it right the first time.

Nathan manning the wood
chipper.  “Many hands make
 light work.”

Having repaired the chipper,  I was able to process some large downed trees and limbs just south of the house, and together with Nathan Douglas and Meredith Mancuso we put up 3 large piles of wood chips, I would estimate a total of five or six cubic yards in total, a substantial pile of rotting wood suitable for Hügelkultur, and the better part of a cord of fire wood, stacked and split.  Not coincidentally, the forest was looking much more pleasing to the eye after having made this progress.

There is truly no end to this type of work on the homestead.  I am focusing our efforts in an area generally to the south of the house, to create a more park-like setting in the general vicinity, and to allow more sunlight to reach the house and future greenhouse in winter.  Even this relatively small area of 3 to 5 acres, depending on how ambitious I am, would require a huge amount of future effort to maintain.

The products of clearing the forest of dead fall

I also transplanted a clematis from our Chicagoland home to the homestead in mid-April.  You can literally watch this plant grow; on some days I have photographic evidence of it growing over 3 inches in a day.  It now has a prominent place on the east side of our Michigan home.  I had expected some so-called “transplant shock,” but there is no evidence that the plant lost any time in putting on spring growth.  It went from being cut back to the ground to having a 1 foot high shoot in two weeks, and then it really took off, putting on about 4 feet of vertical growth in the following two weeks.

Clematis “time lapse” photographs.  That lump in the lower right-hand corner of the left-most image is the clematis root
root ball on “transplant day.”
Assembled raised bed frames

Finally, closing out the month of May, Nathan, Dennis and I were able to build five raised garden beds for Geri.  The beds are constructed of 2 in. x 12 in. x 12 ft. pressure treated lumber, are 2 ft. deep, and have outside dimensions of 4 ft. x 8 ft.  We used three, 3 in. stainless steel deck screws, and waterproof wood glue, at each corner.  The structure of the beds should last for 7 to 10 years, or more.

I hired some help with a Caterpillar 299 skid steer (also known as a compact track loader) to clear a garden area approximately 50 ft. x 33 ft., on the east side of the yard and reasonably close to the house.  Meredith put her critical eye on my layout of the garden, and perhaps needless to say that resulted in a complete do-over, thankfully.  Meredith had it right, a good eye, and Geri was pleased with the result.  After placing the beds in the garden, and putting in each a layer of the harvested rotting wood, we filled them one-by-one with 2 cubic yards of topsoil with the help of our Cat 299 operator.  Geri, Meredith and Susan then planted our first southwest Michigan homestead garden.  (Susan also did a great deal of weeding about the house, as is her want, and it looks much the better for her efforts.)  Geri had spent the better part of the prior day traveling the back roads of southwest Michigan in search of best herb and vegetable plants she could find, and with great success.  The next day, I installed a simple, and temporary, 2-zone irrigation system.

Garden installation, from earth-moving to installed, planted and irrigated raised garden beds

I think I can speak for Geri when I say that we have never slept better than we do at the homestead.  Long days of work in the home, garden and forest, days that to me feel more like play, days often punctuated by a jump in the lake, some paddle-boating, paddle-boarding, or fishing, and great meals, and all of that in the company of great friends.  This is what it means to me to be truly blessed.

Thank you for reading and commenting on the blog.  Your comments and criticisms, your inputs and acknowledgements, are welcomed, and will help me to improve my posts.  Please “follow” the blog by clicking on the “g+,” or by e-mail at  “Follow by Email.”

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— John, 12 June 2014

4 replies
  1. Peter
    Peter says:

    Just LOVE reading these entries John. It absolutely makes Gina and I HUNGRY for our next visit. The progress that you and your various helping hands have made over the last few months is truly wonderful to behold and it's so exciting to see what comes next in your ongoing adventure.
    See you soon!

    • homestead
      homestead says:

      Thank you so much Peter. We are excited to see you both again. Spring has been an amazing, and very busy, time of year. I working on a post or two regarding all of the wildlife that has been identified, and I have two more more traditional posts in progress, one on beekeeping and the other on the seminar we attended in MN. Great fun. See you soon!

  2. Gina
    Gina says:

    Wonderful reading! You're a great writer. I really have enjoyed reading your blog. Heard a bit about this last process from Susan about poor Geri driving around all day, the weeding, and the measurements and how Meredith set things right. Good on her! Can't wait to come back to be somehow involved in another part of growing the homestead. (as well as enjoying fun on the lake) Hopefully soon. 🙂

    • homestead
      homestead says:

      Thanks Gina! One project I think I will be starting soon is how to get some perennial fruit production going, specifically apples. Last weekend Geri and I learned something of how apple trees are grafted onto heartier root stock, and the light bulb came on for me; we have about 20 to 25 crab apple trees onto which we could graft Honey Crisp or Pink Lady, or, or, or. These crab apple trees have been going for many years without support, so I believe them to be very "hearty." I have some more research to do, and I think it is possible to make a start on this project soon. Thanks again for your kind words.


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