“Mom, there’s a chicken in the front yard!” my son ran in from playing in the back yard to report. I left my guests for a moment and went outside to find two chickens on the loose. One chicken escaped our closed gate and was in the side yard. Another was all the way in the neighbor’s backyard. I got the one if the side yard back using my only chicken-herding technique: walk behind it in the direction you want it to go. Apparently chickens don’t like being stalked.
I headed over to the neighbor’s yard, counting on this method to work again. This would require opening the neighbor’s gate. I thanked God their two Great Danes weren’t out—and I was expressing gratitude on my behalf, not the chickens’—and hoped the neighbors wouldn’t notice. We never see them, and I have no idea what they might think of my suburban chicken-chasing antics.
To my great dismay, the fence was zip-tied shut. No doubt for the Great Danes. Now, I don’t mind jumping a fence one bit. But the zip-tied fence meant that I was not going to be able to use my one, sure-fire chicken-herding method. And I do mind catching and carrying full-size chickens.
Lest you think I’m some hardy, homesteading type of gal, let me set you straight. I am not comfortable around any animals except my own children. I can scarcely tell a weed from a plant. Actually, I can’t. I prematurely pulled a garlic plant Neil put in our front flower bed.
Sure, I pick up the chickens when they’re babies. Even toddlers. But after they hit that awkward, adolescent chicken stage, I try not to touch them. So here I am, chasing a squawking, flapping chickens around my neighbor’s yard, trying to dodge piles of Great Dane poop while my kids watch me.
And if you didn’t know, chickens are fast. Especially these free-rangers. I asked my son to get me a bucket to catch it in so I wouldn’t have to touch it. It quickly became clear that wasn’t going to work. My son offered to try. Good burbstead boy! I went inside to get his shoes (because poop), and when I came back the chicken was nowhere to be seen.
I imagined the poor, lonely chicken roaming the neighborhood, regretting his own wanderlust. I looked down the street but there was no sign on him. Oh well, I thought, there’s nothing for it now.
I described the incident to Neil when he got home. He went out back, counted the chickens, and insisted they were all accounted for. Gulliver had found his way home.
The Black Rangers breed was much more interesting than our previous breed. But the longer we had the chickens, the bolder they became. One day they climbed the deck stairs and pooped all over the deck. We had to start barricading the bottom of the stairs with lawn chairs. Three of them escaped the gate again before we realized they were squeezing under, and secured it with rocks.
But this was just the beginning of our chicken-chasing ventures. Neil arrived home from work on a 90-degree day with 15 minutes to load up the chickens and take them to the friend’s farm where he processes them. We chicken-proofed the back of our station wagon since our trusty Farm Focus was replaced with the $200 Scion XB, which has a lot less room in the back.
Neil corralled the chickens into the box quickly by putting food in it—something they don’t normally get on slaughtering day. He had only managed to get a couple to the car when our son jumped into the box when its door was open, and they all ran out. At that point they knew something was up and weren’t going to flock back into the box. Neil, wearing his winter boots that double as muck boots, tried chasing them but we quickly learned just how fast chickens are.
“If anyone can see this, they must be laughing their heads off,” Neil remarked.
Two days later our neighbor posted the theme featured above.
We worked together to use our chicken-herding technique, cornering them in positions Neil could grab them. After what felt like an eternity, he had wrangled them all into the station wagon and was off.
In related news, Neil “accidentally” purchased a chicken coup off a local auction site. It was a steal, and we could use it for our meat birds next summer, but getting layers is also on the table. If they’re as ornery as the male Black Rangers, I’m not sure I’m up for it. At the same time, it was a lot more fun having chickens that explored instead of just eating and pooping in the same place every day.
If you’re wondering, raising our own chickens costs about the same as buying whole chickens at the store, and much less than purchasing local, humanely-raised birds. For answers to all your burning questions about backyard chickens, including the price calculations, please see Are You Too Chicken? To Raise Backyard Chickens.
For more on our suburban “homesteading” endeavors, see Rocking the Burbstead: How We’re Homesteading on 0.1 Acre.
And why do we do this crazy stuff? Check out How Do You Uncube? A Philosophy of Hobbies.
Would you ever consider raising backyard chickens? What do you think–should we get layers for eggs?
Ah, the sights and sounds of autumn. The crunch of leaves, the bright blue sky, the brilliant foliage…
And the deafening sound of leaf blowers. Inefficient, loud, lazy leaf blowers blowing six leaves at a time, when a rake can coral hundreds at once.
Here are some more weird habits I’ve noticed in our Midwestern suburb. No offense if you do any of these. We do some weird stuff, too, like raising chickens, hauling manure in our hatchback Focus, and baiting swarms of bees. And there’s the time my kid peed in the middle of a Kan jam tournament. Maybe we just belong in the country. That’s why we’re rocking the burbstead.
- Mulch flower beds. Every spring, mulch is advertised ubiquitously and many homeowners spend a bunch of time and money spreading mulch on their flower beds. God forbid we let the dirt show. I suppose it may cut back on weeds, but I can’t imagine why mulch is so highly coveted come spring in the suburbs.
- Plant annuals. While you’re picking up mulch, why not buy a few flats of impatiens or other small, non-fragrant flowers, and painstakingly plant them strategically around your home? Never mind that they’ll be dead within two months, and that you’ll have to do it all over again next year. We’d rather grow something edible.
- Stay inside. Once those beds are mulched and annuals planted, most people hibernate until it’s time to blow leaves. The yards people moved to the ‘burbs for sit largely untouched, except to mow the grass. Just about everyone has an unused patio furniture set and a grill that makes all of four burgers a year. People with children might venture out a bit more but for the most part the prized decks, patios, and lawns of suburban homes lie empty.
- Not meet their neighbors. We’ve thrust ourselves upon the neighbors by baking them cookies when we moved in as well as when anyone new moves into the ‘hood. (Thank God the pastry chef was NOT HOME when I took them some slightly-too-crisp chocolate chip cookies before I learned her profession.) Anywho, meeting your neighbors takes work nowadays, and even some pretty sneaky moves like just *happening* to check the mail at the same time.
- Park in the driveway. Let’s just be honest–having a garage is one of the biggest advantages of suburban vs. city dwelling. Where else are you going to store all your extra junk? I mean, park your car. Wait no, definitely store the junk. We only park in our garage in the winter, and only then after a massive garage clean-out in which we fold up the stroller, bike trailer, ping pong table, chicken feeders, and other trappings of burbstead life.
- Buy each other’s stuff at yard sales. Speaking of garages, when do we venture out to see our neighbors? When we want to buy their stuff on mad discount at garage sales. Two fancier neighborhood have community garage sales and it’s crazy how people show up early to start rifling through other people’s junk. We went and scored some K’nex which have been a huge hit.
- Trash pick each other’s stuff. What’s more embarrassing than haggling over your neighbor’s used furniture? Picking it out of their tree lawn under cover of darkness later. Not that we would know 🙂
- Own too many tools. Clearly every homeowner needs to own a pressure washer, an extension ladder, a post hole digger, a table saw, a hydraulic jack, and an air compressor. We wouldn’t want to share or anything. That’d be too neighborly. Instead we’ll all spend thousands of dollars on all this equipment we rarely use, and store it all in our garages where our cars don’t fit, so that we don’t ever have to meet each other. Or, if you’re like us, wait until someone throws out their broken equipment and…well, you know the rest.
- Treat their lawns. Grass, that stubborn plant that cannot be allowed into the flower beds, is highly coveted in the rest of the yard. Clover, on the other hand, is intolerable. People pay a small fortune for toxins to kill any non-grass plants that may dare to grow. Maybe it’s my Irish heritage, but I can’t imagine what’s so offensive about clover, and certainly won’t be paying anyone to kill it.
- Helicopter parent. Another supposed advantage of the suburbs is their safety, yet we’re still expected to watch our kids like hawks. Go to a suburban playground and observe the moms. They are on the slides, up the ladders, and generally following their children at no more than a two-step distance. They are most certainly not sitting and watching from the park benches, lest they be accused of negligence. I love when no one is at the park (which happens often since no one goes outside) so I can sit down for once in my life and just do nothing. Isn’t that what playgrounds are for?
Has anyone observed these or other strange suburban habits? What are some quirky country or city ways you’ve noticed?
Our summer was too much fun. It’s my favorite season, and we try to swim, camp, garden, and travel as much as possible without over-doing it. Lest we seem like ascetics after our post on wants vs. needs, here’s evidence that we have plenty of fun around here.
First, some updates on our burbstead goals:
I didn’t learn how to can because we were able to keep up with our tomatoes. I helped with the prep for Neil to preserve 16 jars of salsa, as well as making several large batches of fresh pico de gallo. Neil and his brother canned two pecks of jalapenos into sweet-hot slices also known as cowboy candy.
The remote garden was unsuccessful. We just got too busy to take care of it, and it was a very dry summer for us. Maybe next year we’ll build more raised beds or give our community plot proper attention.
We didn’t catch a swarm of bees. Maybe our bait box was too small. We can try again next year. The beauty of the burbstead is that everything is small scale, the learning curve is gentler, and we don’t have to spend much to pursue these fun, productive, kid-friendly hobbies. We also fit in lots of suburban fun which wouldn’t be possible if we had more ‘stead to attend to.
Here’s is a sampling of our activities this summer:
Went on two vacations! The first was to Western New York, i.e. the middle of nowhere. It’s beautiful farm country. It wasn’t our first choice destination, but we didn’t plan ahead well, and still had fun. We visited two different Great Lakes beaches, saw the “Grand Canyon of the East” at Letchworth State Park, went to a war aviation museum, and spent time with the two families we rented a place with.
Our second vacation was a “YOLO” move. Our son will start kindergarten next fall, so we decided to take advantage of off-season prices and four free airline tickets and enjoyed a week near St. Pete’s Beach, FL. The kids were excited about flying and the weather and water were perfect. Until Hurricane Hermine blew in.
Neil had the brilliant idea to purchase an annual family pass to a local museum for $56, because it offers reciprocal relationships at hundreds of attractions across the country, including several near St. Pete’s Beach. It was well worth it just for that week, though we’ll continue to use the pass elsewhere.
Went to two waterparks. We were offered free passes by our generous friends who got them from a work conference. The normal price for one adult is $70! The kids had a blast. The second was a local, much smaller place that we visit once a year. I made the mistake of showing my son in the lazy river, and he wanted nothing to do with waterslides after that.
Celebrated birthdays—three out of the four of us have birthdays within three weeks. We had a family party for our son’s 5th featuring pizza and water balloons. Throwing a Pinterest-worthy party is just not my thing.
Went swimming. My son took his first swim lessons after falling off the dock on our first vacation. We tried to get in as much water exposure as possible without purchasing a pool pass. We visited three free library events at a nearby pool and visited a local lake twice. And of course swimming at the beaches on our vacations. Neil’s sister, who lives nearby, had a pool put in near the end of summer. We were granted a “pool pass” and swam there several times.
Camped four times. We camped with our church Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends, Neil went on a men’s retreat, and also camped out with our son one night. We want more camping, though. Camping really opens the door to affordable travel and recreation. We may squeeze in another trip before it cools off here.
Went to a conference. I’ve been going to the Xenos Summer Institute, a Bible conference, since I was 17, and Neil was going there before we ever met. It’s one of the highlights of the year, and my mom graciously agreed to babysit so we could absorb 2.5 full days of teaching and practical training.
Went to two family weddings. Plus some bridal & baby showers, and Neil’s grandpa’s 99th birthday party!
Watched a lot of Olympics. Go USA! I was useless the week gymnastics was on.
Went to the zoo. We have a pass to the local zoo—we split it with another family so it’s $50 for the year. We buy one every other year since the 13-month pass gets us through most of two summer, plus one off-season.
Road the local scenic railroad. Tickets are almost $20/person, but if you bike the parallel trail one way, you (and your bike) can ride back for $3. Bikes and trains are two of my kids’ favorite things so this activity is always a hit.
Were visited by two out-of-state family members. My dad and sister both came into town this summer, separately.
I’m always a bit sad for summer to end, but I’m enjoying the more structured routines of fall, as well as the seasonal festivities that are especially fun with little ones. A trip to the apple orchard, hiking, pumpkin carving, and campfires are all in our future.
How was your summer? What do you look forward to in fall?
It’s summer on the burbstead! Time for an update.
Just yesterday, Neil took our chickens for “processing” at a friends’ house where he has access to a mechanical plucker and other handy equipment. We got back from vacation the day before and he tried to pack everything that night since, of his own admission, he always forgets something. Of course, the chickens are the one component he couldn’t pack until the morning.
A couple hours after he left I went outside to hang laundry. My two-year-old came with me to play in the sandbox. She wandered over to the chicken tractor as she had every morning. She’d given us a Stoic summary of what happens to the chickens the day before: “Sometimes my dad feed the chickens. Sometimes he kill them. Then we eat them up in the tummy.” So I wasn’t worried about her discovering the empty tractor.
“The chickens aren’t in there,” I warned as she headed over.
“This chicken need food,” she declared.
“Dad took the chickens to the farm,” I reminded.
“This chicken need food,” she insisted. For a second I thought there might be a dead chicken in there. What if one died in the night and he hadn’t had time to deal with it this morning? It seemed unlikely, but I looked over and, lo and behold, there was a live chicken walking around in the box.
Neil forgot a chicken! In the rush over going back and forth to load up the car, he’d left behind the last chicken.
Shoot, I thought. That’s going to be messy.
Vegetarians, cover your eyes. Luckily it wasn’t too bad, and it gave Neil a chance to try his hand at skinning rather than plucking. He’s considered doing a second round of chickens later in the summer when he wouldn’t have access to special equipment. He concluded that it was quite manageable. After all, plucking chickens used to be the wife’s job. Let’s just say I’m a city girl.
Guess how he hauled these chickens to the farm? In his trusty, rusty 2-door hatchback. One of the spending fallacies we most try to avoid is the “hobby accouterments” pitfall. It goes like this: I like biking, so I need expensive bike shorts, bike gloves, bike shirts, bike attachments, etc. Since we’re not racing the Tour de France we’ve stuck with basic safety equipment instead.
For the burbstead, the thinking could easily be, “I’m hauling manure, wood, plants, and live animals. I need a pickup truck.” This would be the perfect example of a values-based budgeting blind spot. We value these endeavors so it’d be tempting to justify a truck. Though Neil sorely misses his 1985 Ford F150 he’s resisted the urge to replace it since it’s much more vehicle than we need.
We promised to update y’all on our bait bee hive. So far, we’ve seen bees scouting it out, and even had bees guarding the entrance for a while. But those bees passed on this move-in ready apartment. Further research indicates the bait hive is on the small side. Maybe when Neil’s schedule clears a bit he’ll make a bigger one, but for now it’s in our friends’ woods.
Our snow peas and sugar snaps are ripe and the kids can’t get enough of them. They have to be the easiest way to eat vegetables, ever. We’ve enjoyed some strawberries and picked our first black raspberry yesterday. Tomatoes, cucumbers, hot peppers, and garlic are planted. We’re already enjoyed this year’s harvest of asparagus. Herbs like mint, dill, chives, scallions, and coolantro (a heartier plant that tastes a lot like cilantro) are flourishing.
When we returned from vacation, our garden looked like it grew a lettuce Afro. After months of unlimited salad, the lettuce finally bolted. Neil pulled most of it and planted peppers. We’ll plant lettuce again near the end of summer and enjoy it in the cooler fall weather.
Instead we brainstormed an optimal alternative. In fact, it’s even better than our original plan. I mentioned to Neil that some friends are renting community plots, and the light bulb went on. Why not rent a plot for $8? We used to do this back in our apartment days. The soil is already tilled and water is included in the cost. The plots are 2 miles from our home, right on Neil’s route to work.
Since they’ll be slightly less convenient to tend, we’ll plant one low maintenance crop like corn. And this leaves more our of yard available for other uses.
How is your garden? What is your favorite part of summer?
Like most of our burbsteading endeavors, it was one of Neil’s engineer friends who talked him into beekeeping. If it weren’t for his ilk, we wouldn’t raise chickens or tap our maple trees, either.
Our garden, chickens, and maple sugaring didn’t start as attempts to save money. Rather, they fit the bill for the types of hobbies we like. That is, activities that aren’t too expensive, produce something, teach useful skills, and are kid-friendly and outdoorsy. Neil (and his engineering buddies) sit in cubicles all day and sometimes don’t get to see tangible results from their labor. I suspect this is one reason they tend to gravitate to productive, hands-on, organic activities.
Neil joined the bee bandwagon first and foremost to have a hobby in common with his friend. They took a class together, read library books, talked to other beekeepers, and went to purchase bees & hives off Craigslist together. This brings me to another hobby criterion: it should fit well into our existing social schedule. Of course it doesn’t have to be a shared hobby, but those are great! Bouncing ideas off fellow burbsteaders and sharing resources has led to some good times and beautiful frugal friend synergy.
Beekeeping, like many hobbies, can be very expensive or quite economical. Buying one complete bee hive, with bees, costs around $375. Just the bees are around $100. Neil wasn’t willing to shell out that much for a tag-along hobby, especially since the bees can die so easily and we’re not spending a ton of honey as it is. It’s too much of a gamble.
When we say we pretend to be poor, we don’t for one minute think we’re living like those truly in poverty. We do find it very helpful to pretend we don’t have $375 available to get into beekeeping, and see where our research, creativity, and DIY courage take us. If we can find a reasonable cheaper solution, we will.
Through Neil’s research, he learned that you can catch a swarm of bees instead of buying them. Don’t worry, it’s not as dangerous as it sounds. In the spring, the new queen bees, along with lots of drones, will separate from their hive in a swarm. They can build their own hive, but will take up residence if they find a move-in ready bait hive.
A bait hive is pretty simple and cheap to make. Neil made it using scrap wood, and it took a couple hours, with the assistance of our son and his bee buddy. It’s basically a wooden box made to fit the hive frames, and some bee food to attract them. Our bait hive is currently in a tree in a friend’s yard next to woods, wildlife, and a field of clover and thistle.
It remains to be seen whether we’ll catch a swarm. But since we have next to nothing invested in this project, we don’t care too much whether we catch one or not. If we succeed, we’ll need more bee boxes, which can also be made from scrap wood.
A friend who kept bees while growing up assures us it’s a great hobby for kids—something I wasn’t too sure about since my son acts afraid of ants sometimes. It’s already helping him overcome fear; he went with Neil to buy his friend’s hive and walked through a wall of bees, and even responded calmly when one landed on him.
Bees are also awesome for pollinating the garden, so it’ll be a true burbstead synergy if we could reap that benefit. We don’t use tons of honey, but we often top my homemade yogurt with it, and sometimes use it in homemade granola, granola bars, or just on peanut butter sandwiches. Local honey is said to help with seasonal allergies. It would also make a good gift for certain friends and family. And I’m a Blistex addict, so I’d be willing to attempt some homemade beeswax lip balm.
If all goes well, we’d expand the burbstead and maybe even save some money. Worst case, we’re out a few bucks for the bee frames, and some fun hours with a friend. Either way, beekeeping represents our philosophy of burbsteading, our hobby criterion, and our thrifty approach to potential new costs. Pretend you don’t have the money, and see what creative solutions you can come up with.
Stay tuned to find out if we catch a swarm!
Anyone have experience keeping bees? If not, what is a way you’ve found to do what you want to for less?
Last weekend, Neil accompanied a friend who was purchasing a hive of bees. The errand took them into the country, where they drove past a 100 acre farm for sale. At $1 million, it’s just a teensy bit out of our price range. But it left me thinking about how our .1 farmable acreage (calculated using this tool) is perfectly sufficient for our needs. For now 100 acres isn’t 1000 times better just because it’s 1000 times bigger. We feel no need to wait for “financial independence” to delve into our interests.
Setting big goals is great, and achieving them is even better. But what about the many years spent working toward those dreams? “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans,” John Lennon sang. How to live well in the gap between your goals and your reality is an important question. Our Next Life recently addressed a similar theme in their post “Crafting a Life that Keeps the Stoke High“.
At the Pretend to Be Poor household, we’ve shared about enjoying the journey by prioritizing friendship, generosity, and volunteering, but we also have hobbies we find just plain fun. Mostly these center on old-fashioned, outdoorsy endeavors that have led more than one friend to call our place “the homestead.” While we dream of more land, more gardens, more animals, and more trees, we recognize we have the best of both worlds here at the old burbstead.
Burbsteading is serving us well. I can’t say we adore our suburb. Rural living sounds idyllic compared to our city’s strip malls, yet we acknowledge the many wonderful resources at our disposal. In addition to a good work situation and social network, our 0.3 acre property hosts many treasures. Two maple trees provide enough syrup to last our family (and brunch guests) throughout the year. Our 0.1 acre of “farmable” backyard area currently holds 4 garden plots, the sugar maples, 4 fruit trees, a berry patch, a rain barrel, a large wood pile, 2 compost piles, a bait beehive, and a 12-chicken pen. Plans for expansion are detailed below.
It’s no surprise we’re embracing the burbstead, since we raised vegetables and herbs in pots on our apartment balcony, in a plot rented from a community garden, and in pots in our friends’ backyard when we rented their basement. There’s nothing unique about growing a few tomato plants; our interests don’t go much further than classic frugality or living like grandma. The point is that we can substantially realize certain aspects of our dreams without changing our situation much at all.
Maybe you’d never ever want to homestead, burbstead, or come near a tomato plant or a live chicken. Burbsteading represents a larger philosophy of practicing contentment and creativity in our current situation. Of living your dreams in little servings today. This means we can be at peace with being rooted in the ‘burbs for now while exploring our interest in raising our own food and getting outside often. It’s an active peace, making the most of our situation with rewarding, useful pursuits that don’t require major changes to other areas where we’re quite content.
So instead of pining after a better property, we are rocking the burbstead. This year we want to raise and preserve more food. We already feed our family of four (and frequent guests) a protein- and produce-rich diet for $75 per week, in large part by supplementing through our homegrown goodies. We’ve gradually increased our harvest each year. Plans for this year include:
- Doubling the number of garden beds.
- Doubling the number of chickens we raise by doing 2 rounds. This would provide enough chicken for almost half the year.
- Catching a swarm of bees in the bait hive Neil built. (More on this to come.) Honey from our yard could replace store-bought honey, some store-bought sugar, and could make good gifts.
- Preserving more produce through canning and freezing.
- Continue finding and splitting free firewood to offset heating costs.
- Continue cooking with whole chickens and making lots of homemade items such as broth, bread, yogurt, beans, granola bars, and more.
The efforts of the past 5 years here have culminated in the following results:
- Our compost piles and rain barrel make our garden organic and inexpensive.
- Free wood collection means we no longer pay for any firewood (or gym memberships).
- We enjoy at least 3 months of purchasing very little meat or vegetables, and less fruit.
- We enjoy canned condiments (salsa, pickles, jalepenos) for about half the year.
- We make all our own maple syrup.
- We have built-in hobbies, exercise, and activities for the kids & their friends.
Burbsteading also allows us to trial new skills and interests in a fun, safe environment. We’ve burnt syrup, killed vegetable plants, and lost a fruit tree and a chicken or two, all without sweating the loss on a large scale. We’ve also had the freedom to ease into these hobbies slowly. Burbsteading brings a dose of reality to our dreams, and adds a measure of our dreams to reality.
The principle behind burbsteading applies to anyone. What is your dream? Your passion? Your interests? How can you incorporate these in the place you’re planted right now? Life can feel like a waiting game, but we’re not meant to wish away our lives until we bank a big stash. Integrating your interests into your present scenario goes a long way toward maintaining motivation, building skills, and enjoying the journey.
What aspect of your dreams could you integrate into your life today? Does burbsteading interest you?