Category Archives: Construction Projects

Building the homestead from the ground-up.

Good Ideas

The weekend after Thanksgiving we took the family up to Waco to a harvest festival put on by a group of anababtists who farm using traditional (non-mechanized) methods, teach traditional crafts, and generally do things a bit slower than the general population.  Along with selling their wares, they teach a series of seminars on self sufficiency, skills like blacksmithing and beekeeping, animal husbandry, etc…  It’s interesting and fun to spend a few days wandering, watching, and listening.  This year, Liz came home with a few “good ideas.”  Good ideas generally mean work… lots of it.

We’ve been meaning to put in a garden since we got here, but the holdup has been putting up enough fence to keep critters ranging from chickens to deer and wild pig from eating the fruits of our labor.  In preparation to put in the garden and with her interest to learn new methods for gardening and natural pest control Liz attended a seminar that piqued her interest.  That’s where the work comes in.

Apparently, grasshoppers and similar pests don’t fly or jump nearly as far or as often as they crawl.    One suggestion for ways to minimize damage due to bugs was to surround the garden with an eight-foot wide chicken run.  Chickens LOVE bugs, and will scratch and peck their run down to nothing but dirt, leaving a barren wasteland of death for any bugs brave enough to attempt to cross it.  I guess the odds of a bug getting across an eight-foot wide no-man’s-land filled with ravenous predators are pretty bleak.   Sounded great… until I did the math.

Something I learned a while ago is that most of the work putting in fences goes into getting the corner posts and braces in.  For every corner I have to dig three post holes (2 1/2 feet deep into hard clay) and tie in two braces.  Given how hard the clay is once you dig down more than about six inches, it can take up to an hour to dig a single hole, and in the end you end up with a gloppy mess because the only way to get through it is to use a combination of water and a 16lb digging bar to break up the clay before scooping it out with a post-hole digger.  That pile of goopy glue sticks to my shoes, gloves, tools, etc… making everything about 5-10 lbs heavier than it would normally be.  Then you get the pleasure of putting the post in the hole, backfilling the dirt you just took out, and using that 16lb bar to tamp and pack the dirt down by repeatedly pounding the flat end of it against the ground.  Building fencing sucks…  But it’s a great workout for your upper back.

When we put the fence around the 1.2 acre “yard” I ended up with about 30 wood posts including posts and braces for three gates.  The rest were T-posts that are quick, cheap, and easy.  It took me several weekends to get it done.  With that in mind, consider the following:

chicken_yard If you subtract the six posts that are already there from the earlier fencing effort, that still leaves 27 posts if I did the arithmetic correctly.

The holes are done, posts in the ground, and now I get to finish bracing and stringing the fence fabric.  I guess I’d better quit writing about it and get busy doing it.

Building the Back Yard

Every project we’ve done so far in the “yard” has been geared towards something that produces food or is food.  So far projects have included things like the barn, fence, chicken coop, electric to the barn and coop, water to the animals, etc…  The only thing I’ve done to the yard is to cut back the brush and let wild grasses grow in.  Not much of a yard, and not particularly good at keeping the mud down when it rains.

Now that some of the major projects are done, and all the animals have homes and water, I decided to finally break out the big bag of grass seed I bought last year and work on getting at least a small patch of grass for the kids to play on.  The funny thing about the kind of clay we have here is that it’s about like an adobe brick when it’s dry, and about as sticky as rubber cement when it’s wet.  This makes working it and getting it ready for seeding kinda difficult.  To make matters worse, Liz is pretty adamant that I not use weed killer to get rid of the prairie grasses that “filled” the void when I cleared the brush last year.

It isn’t much fun, but a sod-buster on my puny tractor is decent at tearing up grass and the first few inches of dirt.  It turns over the sod, leaving a narrow trench and extremely uneven ground that has to be run over multiple times and directions to get all of it since the wedge is much narrower than the wheelbase.  My back would appreciate suspension, but that’s not a real option on my tractor.  After an hour bouncing and rattling and banging through the hard dirt, the deeply furrowed and rough ground looked worse than when I started.

To try and clean things up some I used a crappy disc plow that came with the tractor to cut the big blocks of clay into smaller blocks.  Along the way, the grasses got torn up for the most part. The problems with this approach are that the ground ends up pretty uneven and is completely covered in golf-ball sized chunks of hard clay, and the grass forms hard root-balls in the clay that won’t die unless you break up the roots and pull the grass out.  I had to come up with something better.

A few weeks prior, I had acquired some scrap expanded metal when I taught a neighbor how to weld together a milking stand.  There were two pieces of it left that would be about the width of the tractor if I welded them together on some kind of frame.  I figured if I dragged the expanded metal grating across the dirt it would help to both smooth out the ground and to break up some of the chunks.  A few minutes with some more scrap from the garage, some random things to weigh the sled down and my excessively cheap Harbor  Freight welder, and I was in business.

It did a decent job of breaking up the chunks, and a great job of pulling the roots and grass out of the clods.  After a few passes (maybe more than a few) the grass was all clumped up in a handful of balls that either blew away in the wind or were easy to pick up by hand.

The best part… I didn’t have to drag it around the yard.  Isaac and Sydney are still under the delusion that driving anything that is powered by an internal combustion engine is fun.  I don’t want them dragging a plow yet, but a fairly light “sled” that just smooths out the dirt seemed about right for them to cut their teeth on.  I even used the kids and sled to pack or cover the seed after broadcasting it.

IMG_8232The only bad part of the whole deal is that the next week it rained several inches overnight while I was out of town on business.  When I called Liz later to say hi, I got an ear-full because the freshly turned and broken-up earth was now an ankle-deep muck pit that sat squarely between the house and the goat-pasture.  Turns out it’s hard to walk through gloppy, sloppy, deep and sticky mud in the rain carrying a bucket of fresh milk without falling down.

It’s been a few weeks and one or two rains, and now I have a bunch of clover (on purpose) and the beginnings of a green lawn behind the house.

A Doghouse for Mr Thornton

Liz has never really liked the idea of an “inside dog,” coyotes were wreaking havoc on our chickens, and we were planning on going on a family vacation for two weeks and leaving the Dog outside to “protect” the other animals and to make it much easier on the family who was going to be feeding and watering the animals.  The dog would need somewhere to get out of the weather.  Because the barn is behind the back pasture fence and I don’t like the idea of the dog hanging out in the chicken coop I decided the best option would be to knock together a doghouse out of scrap lumber in the (vain) hope that he would use it.

As far as the dog goes, it was a wasted effort.  According to our friend who was feeding and watering him, Mr Thornton spent his time hiding in the shade under my truck, and I can’t see any evidence that he has been in there.  Since we got home, he’s insisted that he belongs inside with us, and I think we’ve given up on trying to convince him he lives outside.  On the up-side, the boys had fun painting it to match the barn and coop, and the one turkey the coyotes didn’t get while we were out of town has decided it makes a decent roost, and he  spends the night on top of if after the chickens he’s adopted as his flock go in for the night.

As for Thornton protecting the other animals, ALL of the chickens survived the coyote raids.  Only the turkeys (who were in the back pasture where Thornton couldn’t go) were picked off.  Apparently a coyote had managed to get through the electric fence, grabbed a turkey to take back to the den, then dropped it on the wires when he got shocked by the fence.  The dead turkey shorted out the fence and opened up a hole that made it easier for the coyotes to get in and out over the next few days to pick off most of the rest of the birds.  You could see where Thornton had been scratching and digging at the fence and gate to get to the back pasture.  I suspect he was trying to go after the coyotes, because he doesn’t bother any of our animals.

In the end, I don’t mind the lost turkeys.  I’m tired of scraping and spraying poop off the porch and listening to the constant noise.  The one bird that’s left is noisier than our rooster and leaves more messes on the porch than all 15 of the chickens combined.  Now that he’s the only one he spends his time with the chickens, and without a flock to keep him company I can’t keep him in the back field where I wouldn’t mind the mess and noise.  If this one makes it to Thanksgiving I’ll be surprised.

The Chicken Coop



I had thought I had taken pictures of the chicken coop while I was building it.  True to form, I got busy and forgot.  So… I guess you get to settle with a picture of Michael doin’ what he spends a lot of time doing: Playing with chickens.

Liz decided she wanted a lot of fresh eggs, which translated into an order of 40 chicks (straight run, so about half would end up in the stew pot as young roosters).  The only problem is that you can’t use a standard back-yard chicken coop for those kinds of numbers.  To make things worse, Liz and the kids have grand plans to get even more chicks and sell eggs since babysitting gigs are hard to come by when there aren’t many neighbors.   I settled on a 8X12 shed framed on 24″ centers with a simple corrugated steel roof.  My thought at the time was that if the chickens didn’t work out, I’d still have a usable shed.

Liz originally had grand plans of moving the chicken coop around the yard to spread the manure and lighten the wear and tear on the “lawn,”  so I built it on “skids” with the hope I could drag it around with the tractor.  The only problem I had with that plan, is that the completed coop weighed so much it acted like a road-grater as I pulled it to it’s final resting spot.  In the end I decided we would just have a “chicken yard” for the birds, and leave the coop where it was.

I made the roosts by cutting the corners off of 5 2×2 firring strips with the table saw blade set for 45 degree angle and setting them into 2 2x4x8s notched about every 18 inches, essentially making an 8 foot wide ladder and leaning it up against the wall at about a 45 degree angle.

In one corner of the coop I built a 2’x6′ “isolation room” that we could use as a brooder, and in another I built a bank of 12 1 cubic-foot nest boxes.  Given the way the birds willingly cram onto the roosts, and the internet-derived recommendations for nest boxes and roosts, we should be able to support up to about 45 layers.

The last thing we did was run power out to the coop so we could plug heat-lamps in when it got cold or when we had chicks in the brooder.  That turned out to be almost as expensive as building the coop, but well worth it in the end.

One thing I learned a long time ago is that if you are going to dig a trench and put in conduit, cram as much into the trench as you can afford so you don’t have to dig it again.  Since I had to run pipe as it was, I decided to run 2-20A circuits (one for the coop, and one for a future small barn/animal shed) and pull water out to the corner of the chicken yard so we wouldn’t have to drag buckets from the house when it was below freezing outside.  IMG_7681It’s turned out to be a real blessing to have the freeze-proof hydrant in the chicken yard, and we’ve already used the heat-lamps since Liz and a friend decided to split an order of cornish-rock meat chickens and we had to have a place to put them.   The water and electricity will come in handy when we get the barn built too.

My Experience with Lumber Liquidators Tongling Strand-Woven Bamboo

This is a stub for me to write about my (bad) experience with the Tongling Strand Woven Bamboo flooring we installed in our house.  The quick and dirty version is simple.  It scratches very easily, and scratches are highly visible against the dark color.  It shrunk enough to separate the joints in the middle of the room and leave a 1/2 inch gap in spite of following their recommended maximum span, acclimation time and procedure, and floor preparation, and is terribly difficult to keep clean.   If you are a little old lady who never goes outside, wears felt-soled slippers all day, and doesn’t have pets, this is a lovely floor, but I can’t recommend it to anyone else.  At this point, I’m trying to figure out how I can overcome the pricetag to tear out the NEW floor and lay tile or carpet.

Home Building Progress

The outside of the house is basically finished.

Here is a small shot of the living/kitchen area.  The pantry door is the first to the left.  The french doors open into the office.

This week cabinets are being stained and installed, tile floor is being put down in the bathrooms and laundry room, and light fixtures and fans are going in. The front door is now on and the garage door will be coming soon.  Peter has decided to install the wood flooring in the main area to save us nearly $3000 in labor costs.

I have been looking up how to make curtains for the living room and kitchen.  Lots of fun!