What a year 2023 was. We got so much accomplished on our home, added to our acreage, and had a lot of fun.
There were also many challenges along the way—from health issues to unexpected renovation costs to drought—but we got through it in good spirits and are very excited for what's to come for our Northwoods homestead!
Double rainbow view of our new acreage across the lake. This rainbow happened right after we had all visited the new land altogether for the first time. The Garden
This was a huge project. We added eight 4x8 raised beds, and filled 5 of them last year.
I planted snap dragons, tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, onions, chamomile, basil, parsley, rosemary, lavender, kale, cucumbers, spinach, and lettuce. We spent so much time putting the beds up and filling them, that we were a little behind getting everything in the ground and probably tried to do too much. I started some seeds indoors, and had a very low success rate with that. In 2024, I'm going to focus on direct-sow crops and purchase seedlings from local small businesses and individuals. Eventually, we'll get our indoor seed starting setup down, but want to set us up for abundant harvesting in 2024.
I learned a lot this first year gardening in a new zone with new challenges. All of our lettuce and spinach and a lot of our kale got eaten by insects, so this year we're installing hoops and nets over those crops. Woodchucks and other small animals got into the garden so we put up a fence that helped with that. The chamomile never really grew (I got about one cup of tea worth), and nothing in the containers—with the exception of herbs—did well. We got a ton of snap dragons, lavender, basil, parsley, rosemary and tomatoes; and enough kale even with the bugs making a dent. I dehydrated herbs, kale, and tomatoes, and froze cherry tomatoes and kale that we've been enjoying into the winter. This was my first time preserving food and I'm hooked!
I also planted a full bed of garlic in the fall. We have two empty beds that we'll fill and fence in in 2024 for a total of 8 raised beds. 2024's garden plan is: tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, potatoes, cauliflower kale, spinach, basil, rosemary, parsley, snap dragons, lavender. Snap dragons were blooming from May into November, they're super cold-hardy. The bees and butterflies loved them and they're so pretty. They'll definitely be taking up a whole garden bed again this year.
We were in a battle with grass and weeds, despite laying down a ton of landscape fabric. In the fall, we put down a bunch of cardboard and wood chips to help with that but there will be more to do with that in the spring. We also have supplies to put in a drip watering system which should help streamline gardening. The Rail House
With the help of my brother-in-law John, we replaced four casement widows from probably the 1960s. It's helped a lot with the drafts this winter, and we're now able to actually open all of our windows in warmer temps! The old casements were warped and didn't have screens, so we couldn't open 4 of the largest windows on the first floor, which made things really hot in the summer.
Left: There was hidden rot under the window in the dining room, the whole wall had to be taken out and rebuilt. Center: progress on the windows in the kitchen. Right: Finally a real stove! It was a challenge to be without a real kitchen for over a year.
We also had part of our electric panel modernized (not a planned-for expense), and an outlet added for the stove and dishwasher, which Andy installed over the summer. After over a year, we finally got a working stove! No more countertop burner and toaster oven. The dishwasher has also been a game changer. We're slowly but surely working on the kitchen - we added and painted bead board to one wall where we had reduced the size of the window, found a full set of Youngstown kitchen cabinets (uppers and lowers for $400!) that happened to match the existing Youngstown sink unit and fit the space perfectly. A temporary plywood countertop works fine until we decide what we want. The kitchen cabinets will be refinished this spring.
A full set of Youngstown kitchen cabinets that fit perfectly for $400
What's left to do on the house before it's "done"?
Finish the kitchen. Cabinets refinished, open shelves and upper cabinets installed, countertop installed, bead board installed on one wall, new windows trimmed out, new light fixture.
Build a tall fence. For noise, and for Scout and future chickens. We've had an issue with random people finding their way into our yard because we're so close to the highway, and would like to prevent that with a fence and gates. There have been wolf attacks on dogs nearby and we hear them howling across the lake at night, so it would be nice to have peace of mind with a fence.
Tear down and rebuild the porch, screening it in. The porch needs a rebuild, and we need a screened in area for mosquito season, so we're hoping to tear it down and rebuild it this summer, with some help.
Address the siding - we're likely going to have to replace the siding instead of just painting it. This will be quite the big and expensive project so it probably won't get done until 2025.
Old house work is never really "done", is it? We have some foundation/leveling issues we know we'll have to address someday, and other things will undoubtedly pop up, but after the above projects are complete, we'll consider what we can do ourselves to be done, for now.
Left: What the house looked like when we bought it (new windows now, but not much else has changed with the look). Center: A mockup of what we hope it will look like someday. Right: Aerial view of our property from 1948. Note the train tracks and rail cars to the left of our house.
The New Acreage In the spring, we had the opportunity to purchase 42 acres connected to our existing 2 acre home plot and wrapping around the lake. We took that opportunity, with no real plan for the land. It was a big decision, but we're happy we did it because there's a lot of potential. So far we've explored it, carved a small trail, made a fire ring and camp site across the lake and had a couple of fires, and went on a Christmas tree harvesting adventure that involved stumbling across a black bear snoozing in its den. The back edge of the property is adjacent to the Mesabi Bike Trail.
Exploring the new acreage.
There are so many huge boulders, little streams running through it, and really cool ridges and valleys. We'd love to add a small off-grid art studio/guest cabin and sauna across the lake someday and have identified the perfect spot for that, but for now we're enjoying creating hiking trails and exploring. It's nice to know that when we look across the water, all of that is ours to get creative with. The kids have been asking for a tree fort and now we have lots of trees to choose from. We're also dreaming of doing some forest farming over there at some point: "Forest farming is cultivating high value specialty crops in woodlands managed to provide suitable shade and site conditions."
Left: Taking build-site notes on the new acreage. Center: Huge boulders are everywhere. Right: Harvesting a Christmas tree right before finding an occupied bear den.
The Original Ten Acres Our "Little Forest" ten acres is still there! We were happy to host lots of family and friends there this summer and fall, and spent quite a bit of time there ourselves. We had hoped to get to more projects there last year but home renovation projects took priority.
Guest tent at the Little Forest acreage.
Drought, Wildfires, Unseasonable Weather
It was a dry and hot summer. Our lake level went down by quite a bit, it was hard to keep up with watering the garden, and we had a wildfire pop up about eight miles from our house. Wildfire smoke was a huge issue here, as it was for many people across the country. Our first BWCAW trip with the boys was hazy and during a burn ban, so we had no campfire. We had a brown Christmas and didn't get any real snow until recently (mid-January). Our lake had open water on it until late December.
It's been less-than-ideal, but we're doing our best to adapt and prepare for a future with more drought and wildfires in it. I attended a very eye opening wildfire symposium put on by the Forest Service this past April, and we participated in a balsam fir removal program over the summer. It was only 2 acres of our land because of the cost of hiring a company to remove the trees. It just isn't realistic to hire out for 50 acres so we're going to have to do much of it ourselves, over time as we can. Andy and John cleared a lot more around our camp at the original land, and will start chipping away at the new acreage this year.
Finishing our kitchen
Clearing trails and removing dead/downed trees on as many acres as possible
Rebuilding/shoring-up and screening in our small porch
Building a tall, secure fence
Preparing to add chickens, once we have a fence
2023 was a great year on the homestead, and 2024 is looking to be even better.