Back in the Homestead Saddle: Starting from Scratch amid Health Crisis

Reader Contribution by Jim Christie
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Seven years ago, we moved back to the U.S. after 10 years in Australia. We started blogging about our plans to build a homestead on the 5 acres we had acquired outside San Antonio, Texas. Most of the blogs were about what we were learning in Australia about cheese making, wine making, beekeeping plus our plans to build a “barndominium” (read that earlier Australia to Texas series here).

We started building the barndominium while still in Australia, working intensely during periods when we returned to the United States. Finally, I returned while my wife, Julie, finished up working. I completed the barndominium, and we set to work on the property and building large gardens and cultivating crops that would make us somewhat food independent. We developed some large raised beds, worked with neighbors and family on livestock and built much of our planned homestead.

Then, life happened. Both my knees became very painful and that made maintaining the property and gardens increasingly difficult. Julie was still working and was traveling a lot, so she could not pick up the slack for me. Our daughter and family relocated 100 miles away, north of Austin.

Much of the joy of our life back in Texas evaporated and we had only been back less than four years. We needed to make a change, even if it meant downsizing our dreams.

Downsizing a Farm-Life Dream (and with Great Ambition)

We spent much of our adult working lives in suburbia and in various locations around the world. We didn’t want to go back to that type of life. We like the water and in Australia had always lived on or near the water, as many Aussies do. On the Northwest side of Austin, Lake Travis made a good target.

The south side of Lake Travis appeared too much like suburbia, but we found many options on the north side of the lake. We would be a little further from town (Julie relocated her job to Austin), but we could get a house with ½ acre and room for a mini-version of our homestead. Better still, the property had a couple of fruit trees and, because we had bequeathed gardens and fruit trees to others every time we moved, we dubbed the fantastic Naval Orange tree the “Karma Tree”.

We moved nearly four years ago with plans for raised-bed gardens, seriously cleaning up the property, building out a nice backyard pool and outdoor kitchen, and perhaps upgrading the home from the neglect it saw over its 35 years of existence.

Better from a quality of life standpoint, we found community groups in the musical and theatre arts — activities and hobbies we enjoyed and had not had time for during our working career. Such groups didn’t exist near where we lived outside San Antonio without driving an hour or so each way. We became very active in these community groups and, along with getting physical therapy on my knees to avoid surgery, procrastinated getting started on our gardens and other homestead activities. It was always “as soon as my knees get better” or “right after our next musical performance” type excuses.

Our fruit trees were productive, and I made and canned enough marmalade to keep family and friends well stocked. We started nursing our pear tree back to life and after our homestead south of San Antonio sold, we built the swimming pool and decks. There was still much to do though.

Homesteading through Health Impacts, Tragedy, and a Pandemic

The following summer, I finally decided to get knee surgery. The first surgery was complete, and I headed home the following day. That evening some of our family who were relocating to our area arrived and, tragically, our nephew had heart failure and died despite the best efforts of family and EMT. We spent the next few months both recovering from surgery and the loss as well as helping family adjust.

The second knee surgery followed over the Christmas holiday and the next few months continued to busy with therapy and family activities. Again, life events took over and the gardens and homestead suffered.

The last 12 months have seen a lot of changes (I’m sure for many of you as well). My knees were back near 100 percent. I was getting much more active and peeling off a bit of the weight from a few years of lower activity. We continued to work on our property and had solid plans for the outdoor kitchen, interior renovations and the gardens, trees, and sheds. We acquired many of the materials to do all the projects, scheduled the work (where we needed outside contractors) and started the demo and preparation work early in 2020.

I was doing a fair amount of substitute teaching work to help buy the materials, so my time was somewhat limited, and we expected the renovations and building activities to take much of the rest of the year. Then the Covid-19 virus started making news in the U.S. We were in Australia during the SARS epidemic, and I was doing a lot of work in and out of China so we were extremely aware of the effects of a pandemic as we had lived through one from close range.

Suddenly, we all had lots of time on our hands. Our community music and theatre groups shut down. Our church and church choir activities were on hold. Julie was working all the time from home rather than driving to the office four or five days a week. I launched into the demo and renovations with some enthusiasm as those activities distracted me substantially from the continual stream of bad news.

We were not oblivious or naïve, either. We had pantries stocked, freezers full, a fair amount of canned and frozen items and even quite a few gallons of fresh water if needed. We learned those habits on our previous homestead and never changed — all good for us at the time. We figured out how to get things without leaving the house and since we had bought months’ worth of building materials and had good internet, were very satisfied in our newly isolated condition.


First squash of the 2020 season

Making Progress on Rebuilding a Homestead from Scratch

We finished the house renovations (at least to a high degree) and happily turned our attention to the outdoor gardens.

In our previous homestead, we had a really nice and large area so we had nine 3-by-10-foot raised gardens in a 3-by-3 grid. We also had a large compost pile, a sturdy chain-link fence around the entire with automatic watering (hot Texas summers mean lots of regular watering). Each raised bed could be fitted in the winter with plastic hoops covered with plastic, so we had two gardening seasons a year.

They were wonderful gardens, but we didn’t have that much room and frankly didn’t want anything that large to maintain. Instead, I built a U-shaped garden from three 3-by-10-foot raised boxes. In the current gardens, the corner posts are 8 feet tall and the entire garden is covered with fence wire with 3-inch squares. The top is also covered with 30-percent shade cloth. Summer days here are long and hot with intense sun, and the shade cloth helps protect the plants from a bit of the intense midday sun. The sides and top covers will make it easy to cover the garden with plastic before the first freeze in December — we usually only have 10 days of freezing weather so a plastic film cover and simple incandescent lighting (old-fashioned Christmas tree lights are my favorite) turn the garden into a greenhouse and enable us to garden all year. In fact, I like our winter garden season the best.

Back on the Homestead Saddle (and Writing About it Too)

As a result of the pandemic shutdown, I am back in the saddle again. Our musical and theatrical productions are shut down until 2021. Our church choir, the same. I am not eager to substitute teach until a vaccine is available. Given the current upswing in Covid-19 infections, who knows for sure if we will have school in the fall (we are in Texas, so I am guessing we will try).

But guess what: I am really, really happy that we are back to gardening and, in the midst of a very tough time — neither of us has a job right now but that’s minor compared with what many are dealing with — we have a refuge of happiness right on our property. We take long walks near the lake each day, tend our garden, deal with our animals, and have safe visits with our family nearby. What is not to like about that.

I plan on continuing to blog about our experiences, which you can follow the full series here, and have included some shots of our new gardens and backyard areas. Things I’ll write about:

• Selecting suitable land for a ½-acre homestead

• Mentally and physically preparing for a homestead rebuild project

• Energy: Wind and Solar (we have equipment we will be installing soon)

• Water – procuring enough garden in Texas for the garden

• Food preservation: canning, fermentation – things we have been doing for several years now

• Food growing: What we are doing with our garden

• Home wine making: Something we enjoy a lot and have a log of experience with

 

If there are any topics that you are the most interested in, let us know and we’ll prioritize those. As life has taught us during the past couple of years, none of us have a guarantee for tomorrow anyway, so let us make the most of today.

 

Jim Christie is a retired IT sales and marketing executive and sales person, aspiring builder, homesteader, beekeeper, cheese maker and gardener. He moved to rural Texas with his family after ten years in Australia. Read all of Jim’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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