Tag Archive | gardening

Burbstead Update: Birds, Bees, and Sweet Peas

Last bird standing.

Last bird standing.

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.


The bait hive.

The bait hive.

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.

Peas (Garden)

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.

In Rockin’ the Burbstead, we mentioned our plan to double our garden space. Alas, that much manure is one thing the Focus can’t haul, and plans to use a friend’s truck fell through.

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?

Rocking the Burbstead: How We Homestead on 0.1 Acres


The chicken tractor is behind the Cozy Coup.

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.

Liquid gold.

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.

Si & chickens

Kids love burbsteading!

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.


From our apple tree.

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:

  1. Doubling the number of garden beds.
  2. Doubling the number of chickens we raise by doing 2 rounds. This would provide enough chicken for almost half the year.
  3. 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.
  4. Preserving more produce through canning and freezing.
  5. Continue finding and splitting free firewood to offset heating costs.
  6. 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:

  1. Our compost piles and rain barrel make our garden organic and inexpensive.
  2. Free wood collection means we no longer pay for any firewood (or gym memberships).
  3. We enjoy at least 3 months of purchasing very little meat or vegetables, and less fruit.
  4. We enjoy canned condiments (salsa, pickles, jalepenos) for about half the year.
  5. We make all our own maple syrup.
  6. 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?

Inflate Your Usefulness With Gardening


Our garden.

Happy Memorial Day! It’s time to plant the garden. Gardening is an ultimate pretend-to-be-poor pastime: it’s fun, gets you into the sunshine and fresh air, and produces something useful and healthy that you would’ve otherwise had to buy. Unlike hobbies that require lots of expensive equipment or fees and may take time away from the family and friends, gardening is inexpensive, easier than you might think, and a great way to bond with your kids. They love playing in dirt, watering plants, and eating straight from the garden. Growing our own food has made us a richer, healthier, and happier family, and in this post we’ll share some of our tips and tricks for inexpensive organic gardening.

Gardening isn’t all about the return on investment, though. If you run a cost-benefit analysis of gardening, don’t compare your harvest to the industrialized farming products you buy at the grocery store, where the tomatoes taste like red nothing. Compare it to the cost of organic, local, responsibly-raised vegetables that taste amazing. Because everything tastes better from the garden!

Yes, gardening is fun, frugal, and relatively easy. But gardening also teaches you a skill, and knowing how to grow your own food is quite valuable. Working the soil also connects you with nature, the past, and how people have always obtained food. When you grow heirloom tomatoes, for example, you’re linking yourself with hundreds of years of history. How nostalgic to think I can enjoy the same type of tomato my grandmother ate.

Neil would add that gardening is a very manly activity. Producing something by the labor of your own muscles, while securing food for your family the good old-fashioned way, is the essence of masculinity in his book. He also enjoys trouble-shooting the many mini-engineering problems that arise from the endeavor.

I’d found gardening has made me a better grocery shopper. Not only do I save money on produce in the summer, I have a richer appreciation for buying fruits and vegetables in-season, locally when possible, and understanding why organic foods and certain vegetables cost more. Knowing all it takes to get from seed to store helps me make better, healthier choices as a consumer.

Lastly, remember that any hobby can become expensive if you make it that way. Take biking, for example. You could buy a used bike, an basic helmet, and maybe a reflector or two and gain an inexpensive and even money-saving hobby. Or you could go all out on special biking clothes, accessories, a bike that costs more than our car. Gardening is similar; you can go overboard buying fancy extra’s, but you don’t need to make a huge investment. Here’s what you need to get started:


Save on soil by making your own instead of buying expensive bags of dirt. Look for someone who is having a pool put in & get their dirt. For fertilizer, go to a horse farm and get their poo. Seriously, just call around, they are glad to get rid of it.

Don’t have a truck? No problem. If you’re driving that old frugal-mobile, you’ll have no qualms about putting down a tarp & loading up the back of it with dirt & manure. We’ve hauled lots of both, multiple times, all without a truck. It’s one more reason not to drive a new vehicle.

No yard? No worries. We began gardening in pots on our apartment balcony and expanded to a plot rented at the community garden for $8/summer, which included access to water. When we bought a house we found the soil was too full of clay so we built raised beds. We’d recommend these as they solve lots of problems, including soil composition, drainage, tilling, etc. The most economical shape to build is an 8′ x 4′ rectangle. Purchase 3, 8′ boards and cut one in half. It’s the perfect shape to plant 3 rows of vegetables in each bed. Here’s a picture of one of ours full of lettuce, onions and a few tomatoes.


We also compost in a bin built out of old (free) pallets. Put your plant-matter waste, egg shells, coffee grounds, tea bags, grass clippings and old leaves in there, stir periodically, and let the magic happen. Make two, and alternate each year.


Go to a small garden center and buy plants by the flat instead of individual pots at the big box store. If you know what you’re doing, starting from seed is even more economical. Some plants, like cucumbers, sugar snaps, and lettuce, are easy to grow from seed directly sowed into the ground.

What should you grow? Naturally growing what you like and buy anyway is a good value. Our garden hobby was born from our penchant for fresh salsa. But some plants require more time or care than others. We’ve found the best-value vegetables to be lettuce, sugar snaps (peas), tomatoes, cucumbers, hot peppers, green beans, and herbs. These are fairly easy to grow. Zucchini is notoriously easy as well.  Other foods, like asparagus, are a little more difficult or take longer to grow, but are expensive to buy, making them a good value. We also grow raspberries, strawberries, horseradish, and fruit trees (apple, pear, plum, and peach).


Sugar snaps are a great value.

In our opinion the worst value is carrots. They take up space all summer, don’t produce much, and are inexpensive to buy (though, like everything, they taste better from the garden).  Bad values also include anything you don’t like or don’t have success growing (for us the latter includes watermelon & corn).


This is not a huge expense, but we use a rain barrel & save about $20 per month in the summer on water & sewer bills. A soaker hose is a good investment, too. It’s full of little holes and lays on the grown right next to the plants so more water gets right to the soil, rather than evaporating off the leaves.


Keep it simple. We get by with an inexpensive trowel (which doubles as a sandbox shovel), a shovel, a pitchfork for compost, and a couple hoses (some free from the garbage). Neil also received a wheelbarrow as a birthday present from me. He makes tomato stakes out of free wood & gardening twine, and finds similar DIY hacks instead of buying the garden equivalent of bike shorts.

Why do you like gardening? Or what prevents you from gardening? Feel free to shoot Neil a gardening question here. He’ll do his best to answer.