July on (and off) the Homestead

With goats to milk, poultry to care for, and as my dad’s round-the-clock caretakers, Matt and I rarely get to leave the homestead together for more than a few hours at a time. But this month, we took an overnight road trip.

The trip was enlightening and even(tually) uplifting in unexpected ways. For this month’s installment, I’ll share details from both on and off the homestead.

Warning… this post includes personal reflection and true confessions!

Preparing to Leave

Walking our little mountainside in flip flops, ducking under briars and fruit heavy branches, stepping around snakes, anticipating the foraging birds that burst from the hedgerow — while carrying buckets in both hands — is just a normal part of every day life for me. But I’ve been adapting to this way of living in step with the expansion of our food forests, livestock areas, and gardens for 8 years. (On the flipside I’ve forgotten how to walk in heels!)

Me and this beauty keep meeting in the chicken coop this month.

When leaving our homestead in someone else’s care, I try to make landscape navigation a little easier. Before our trip, I used the electric lawnmower to shorten up the paths. I trimmed back path-encroaching plants in the hedgerow with pruners. I moved rocks and plant debris and dug out mud around the livestock areas (caused by recent insane rain).

I also streamlined my normal processes. I metered out feed portions, consolidated supplies to a single location, and shortened up the duties list. For example, I milked Abbie and Sophia before I left on Day 1 and after I returned on Day 2, eliminating goat milking from the list. I also made egg collection, turkey hugging, and barn sweeping optional.

Still, even the scaled back the chore list adds up.

  • My dad needs meals made and served three times a day.
  • Poultry have to be let out and put up, watered and fed.
  • Our pet turkey needs scratch scattered and his handsomeness admired.
  • Goats need supplemental feed and lots of fresh water.
  • The dogs and cats have to be let in/out, in/out, in/out… and to be fed and watered.
  • Garden beds with young plants typically need watering. (Though not this time thanks to our epic month of rain).

None of this is complicated or time-consuming when it’s your homestead. But when you factor in the drive down our slow dirt road (and sometimes perilous driveway), putting on muck boots for half the list, and not being used to this rustic life… it’s a huge favor to ask.

Luckily, I have wonderful family who said yes! On top of all managing the list above, they even forced a broody Muscovy duck off a secret clutch of eggs (outside the coop) that she decided to sit the day we left.

The Trip

With duties transferred, Matt and I set out on the Blue Ridge Parkway to see the sights between Lowgap and Asheville, North Carolina.

The Drive

Much of the drive is lined by the same species of trees in our backyard. But every so often, the tree line opens up and the altitude increase becomes apparent. Perched on parking lot lookouts, the bird’s eye views of this majestic mountain expanse is mind boggling. It’s impossible to take in the fullness of grandeur that nature has been perfecting here for the last 400 million years. But we certainly tried!

Along the way, we pit-stopped at a Colonial/Greek Revival mansion turned craft store, hiked up to Linville Falls, ate lunch in Little Switzerland, and summitted Mount Mitchell, all by walking short distances from the car in flip flops.

Despite the natural beauty, by the time we pulled through the gates of the Biltmore Estate, I was wishing we’d taken the off-the beaten path tour instead. Between snack stands, crowded gift shops, and TV chatter, it felt like walking around a mall at times.

Next trip, we’ll opt for stops identified by mile markers rather than huge parking lots!

The Stay

Since we only got one night away from the homestead, I booked us at the Inn at the Biltmore Estates. It’s been a long time since I enjoyed a fancy hotel. I was looking forward to entering a lobby styled with fresh flower arrangements and being handed a well-garnished, chilled, complimentary cocktail as we checked in.

Instead, we were handed a tourist book about the estate. Rather than fresh flowers, the lobby had fake orchids and a large gas fire burning in the lounge area. Our room, a complimentary upgrade, overlooked the valet circle. The room amenities were the same that come standard in an airport hotel. Even the single rose in the bathroom was fake.

I realize how whiney this sounds… Oh, poor me, no regionally inspired cocktail or fresh flowers to make me feel welcome. And you are totally right! I have no idea know how Matt tolerated me!

I went into the experience with pre-conceived ideas about what our stay would be like. I broke my own travel rule about embracing the place for what it is rather than imposing myself on the experience. And I sucked the joy out of spending a night, free from being a caretaker, with my incredibly handsome, smart, and funny boyfriend!

If I’d had a better attitude, Matt could have regaled me with his Leghorn Foghorn impersonation as we played croquet barefoot, in front of hydrangeas (above), and guzzled estate wine from the bottle. We would have sipped hot chocolate in the lounge and joked about how refreshing it was cool off with hot beverage and roaring fire in the middle of July.

In truth, the hotel was over the top in its underwhelming mimicry of relaxed elegance. But the entire Biltmore Estate is ridiculous in that way. The place was built so some rich guy could get away from the hustle and bustle of the city, entertain guests, and pretend to be Lord of an estate — in a nation defined by being anti-monarchy. I imagine the place was regarded as a bit of American mockery in it’s heyday. And now it’s a wealth-fantasy theme park complete with tram tours.

I should’ve done more research before booking. But mostly, I should have been a good sport when it became clear the trip wasn’t going to be anything like visiting a Chateau B&B in Bordeaux.

Night on the Town

After a quick refresh from the road, we donned our city outfits and headed to downtown Asheville for dinner.

Apparently parking apps are a thing now. So we had to install one… which was just another irritation at the time. But once we got over the trauma of providing personal bank details just to park, we managed to have a pretty good time.

We started our progressive dining adventure at La Bodega by Curate. Our bartender was fantastic! He paid attention to the little details that transform a mixed drink into an artisanal cocktail. The food was every bit as delicious as a good tapas bar in Spain and right-priced for the ingredients. The portions were even a little larger than expected.

Here’s how that went.

We planned to have small plates at several notable restaurants. But after walking around for an hour, and eating too much at La Bodega, we stepped into Curate expecting to be shooed back out for not having a reservation. Instead, we were quickly seated at the bar.

Here’s a little taste of how that was.

After four delicious (rather large) small plates, we were stuffed and ready for bed. We were also inspired to buy the Curate cookbook to make the blood sausage and lamb skewers at home!

We haven’t made those two recipes yet because we don’t have lamb or fresh blood at the moment. But here’s a recipe we tried recently.

Day 2

Our next day was supposed to be spent leisurely exploring the Biltmore grounds, having a long lunch, and reluctantly driving home. Instead we filled up at the hotel breakfast buffet, raced through the gardens, did the wine tasting, and hit the road before lunch. We were home by 3pm.

I’ll spare you the details because, well, I was whiny Tasha most of the trip and I am sick of that gal. But here are a few pictures from the gardens.

Oh wait… just kidding! Those are photos from our homestead.

Here’s the Biltmore.

Here are some photos that Matt took.

As you can see, the Biltmore gardens are a little larger and more formal than our homestead gardens and greenhouse, but also very pretty.

Insights and After Thoughts

Since we got back I’ve been trying to unpack why it was so hard to just have a good time. I mean that was the point of the trip!

Have I just changed that much as a homesteader? Or has the world outside changed that much? Or is our homestead life just so good that I may need to focus on different kinds of experiences if we take vacation again in the future?

Ultimately, I think the answer is yes, yes, and yes!

Personal Changes

I’ve definitely changed since I left the Washington D.C. area 8 years ago. Last week, our dogs brought home one of our neighbor’s guineas. They’d snapped his leg in two “playing” with him.

After consulting my neighbor, I used my bare hands to stretch, twist, and break the bird’s neck. I know it seems brutal. That certainly would have been unthinkable to my old self.

Back then I would have made the bird suffer for two days, endure a car ride, and all that extended terror until I could get a vet appointment and pay someone else to do the humane thing. And I would have stressed about whether I was doing the right thing the whole time.

Without question, having the skills and decision making capacity to handle difficult situations is a much better way to live. But there’s a downside to becoming more competent at the stuff of life.

The Ordinary Effect

Before I got serious about knowing how to garden, the Biltmore grounds would have blown my mind. Now though, I could identify most of the plants on display because I’ve already grown them. For the few I didn’t know, I’ve learned how to reverse identify a plants needs by studying their rooting habit, plant structure, and the conditions of the soil and location they were planted.

After walking everything but the meadow, which looked a lot like pasture, I came across two plants (chaste tree and cold hardy bananas) that I felt inspired to add to my garden. Once I got home, I quickly confirmed the accuracy of my guesses on plant care with 5 minutes of internet research. And yep, those will be going in the garden soon!

Note, learning how to grow a plant just by looking at it isn’t some special master gardener skill. It’s just a different way of using the same basic observation skills you have to learn to safely forage mushrooms or plan a permaculture homestead.

Also, all the stuff that makes the garden seem so fancy – the espaliered fruit trees, vertically trained grape vines, shrubs trained into trees, and trees coppiced into shrubs – are simple to do at home. It just takes a little targeted pruning over a period of years. The hard part is waiting to enjoy those decorative results.

As another example, at La Bodega, there was a leg of ham on a stand. A line cook periodically shaved off bits with a sharp knife. Other guests were wowed by this display. Frankly, so was I, the first time I saw whole cured hams hanging in a shop in Spain. It felt dangerous to sample the sliver of “raw” meat the butcher passed to me on the tip of his knife.

Now, I’ve raised, slaughtered, and processed four breeds of pigs. I’ve cured hams (multiple ways) and made sausage, head cheese, lard, lard soap, and more. I still like to taste different cured hams — especially from unique breeds or pigs finished on special diets or given particular care regimens. It’s just no big deal to see a cured ham leg anymore.

By definition, as a homesteader you learn how do a lot more things at home. The more you learn, the harder you become to impress.

So, those of you new to the path, beware! You will gain so much confidence and competence living this way that much of what used to seem exotic and exciting loses its mystery. And when the mystery is gone, so is the enchantment.

Changes in the World

The world has also changed a lot in recent years. The cattle panels directing people where to walk, pay, enter/exit now standard at coffee shops, retail stores, and tourist sites confused me. Like my goats, my instinct is to avoid being herded and meander away from obvious traps. Several times I found myself climbing over or squeezing through barriers to get where I needed to be. (Thankfully I don’t embarrass easily because I gave a few people some good laughs!)

Public spaces also seemed so much louder and I don’t think it’s just because I’m accustomed to our rural soundscape. People scrolling through their TikTok feed without ear buds, showing each other funny memes with loud sound files, and the endless variety of ring tones and notification bells sounding off are much more prevalent now.

Living Well at Home

Clearly I’ve changed. Certainly the world has changed some too. However, I think the biggest reason I found it hard to have a good time was the prevailing feeling that everything was simulacra in the Baudrillard sense.

I don’t want to keep harping on aspects of the trip that I didn’t enjoy. But I do want to explain what I mean by this. So, I’m going to use my old house versus our present homestead to illustrate.

My old suburban home was decorated to evoke a sense of French and Italian rural charm. But in retrospect, it was a poor facsimile of the kind of practical beauty that makes a home genuinely interesting.

For example, I had a collection of decorative roosters and pastoral scenes depicted on curtains and in artwork in my old kitchen and dining area. I had rustic, handmade Italian tiles on the floor, and decorative paint treatments to simulate plaster. Copper-plated colanders, cookie cutters, and rustic wine art evoked an old world feel.

I even converted part of my basement into a wine tasting room, stocked with cases of wine, a glass topped barrel table, barstools, and tasting glasses. But I didn’t even make wine! My life before was all a show!

Now, we have farm fresh eggs sitting out on the counter, mason jars of goats milk filling the fridge, cheese drying on the table, rustic containers full of homegrown produce tucked into nooks and crannies all around. Drying herbs and spices in process, along with fermentation crocks in various states of use, and whatever homemade sparkling wine we just bottled offer seasonal decorative displays.

I don’t have room for much decoration anymore because our space is filled with the authentic tools, foods, and products we use and make.

The difference between the aspirational décor of my old house and the practical beauty of a real farmstead life is like comparing a pencil drawn stick person to a real person. Yes, you know the pencil person represents a person, but it can’t do the stuff a real person does. So many places we saw this trip just seemed like stick figures of things that used to be real.

Perhaps once upon a time, a decorative gas fire burning in the lobby of an air-conditioned hotel in July might have seemed luxurious. Today, though, it’s a silly simulacrum. Actually, it’s a pretty perfect symbol of the environmental health of our planet going up in flames. It just made me feel sad and uncomfortable.

The Good Stuff!

Despite not living up to my misplaced expectations, I have to confess, our trip wasn’t a waste. It’s taken a few weeks to realize, but I do feel very much uplifted and refreshed for having gotten away for two days and one night! It gave me perspective and a new appreciation for how lovely our ordinary life really is.

Now, for some updates from on the homestead.

July on the Homestead

At the end of June, I left my watering cans in the garden. I normally leave them lying where I last used them to remind me where to start checking/watering beds the next day. Well, they’ve been sitting in the same location for a month. We’ve had so much rain (13 inches in July) that my watering cans are now enveloped by melon vines and mums!

The intense rain and way above average heat delayed germination for things I direct sowed in my garden beds in June. Thankfully once the plants finally germinated, the intense rain fueled their growth. So, my plants are still timing out as expected and the garden is full again!

On a surprising note, none of my basil germinated. I planted 4 kinds across 6 beds and not a single seedling showed up. I used all of my seeds, so I can’t germ test them. But I’m pre-sprouting a new pack to see if I can’t get a bit to use and freeze before our warm weather ends.

In the meantime, I’ve fallen in love with garlic chive pesto as a completely delicious substitute!

There’s been a lot of different plants in bloom, but none of the flowers are as profuse as usual. They seem to be picking up a bit of steam in the last few days though. So perhaps August will be the month of flowers!

I’m amazed by the quinces. I’ve never seen them growing before. So, when the fuzzy outer coating started to brown, I thought they were rotting from the rain. Turns out, that fuzz falls off revealing a green skin beneath.

That’s about it from on and off the homestead for July. I’m hoping August is a little less wet so I can get a good harvest of grapes, and enjoy spending more time sitting outside in the garden!

Also, I know it’s been a rough summer in a lot of places between heat, drought, floods, and more. And frankly, we must expect that to continue to be the case for the next few decades. We should also expect it get a lot worse if we can’t collectively control our carbon and other greenhouse emissions. But we can adapt and make our landscapes and lives more resilient and beautiful even amid these challenges.

In case you missed my last post, my 4th issue of Epicurean Living is available for free. It’s got lots of ideas to help you get started in that direction. Please share the link with anyone you think will benefit.

8 comments

  1. I’ve imagined the Biltmore to be a little more snooty than I’d like. Thanks for saving me a trip! I’ll take dandelions over plastic flowers any day:). Love the pics of your estate❤️

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    • Hey Robyn — Thanks for reading! I certainly don’t mean to discourage visits to the Biltmore. They’ve got some great gardeners creating stunning plant displays. Just go with the right mindset. Be prepared to drive a lot, leave time for tram rides, and expect a decorative rather than a botanical specimen/historically accurate garden. Also, in the age of Airbnb super hosts, you’ll likely get a better value and more amenities renting a house near the estate than staying on it. And do go to to La Bodega and Curate!

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  2. We agree with your assessment! We left the charlotte area to build a homestead in the yadkin valley area 3 years ago and couldnt be happier!
    We have turned 2 of our six acres into food production and love deciding what to eat based on what is ripe/harvested.
    I, too, am cranky when we make a trip “to the city”, because so much seems unnecessarily difficult.
    Thanks for being so honest.
    👩🏼‍🌾💗🐓🥒💪🏻📚

    Maureen Sullivan, Owner
    Parsonage Farm
    Union Grove, NC
    704-701-3292

    Like

    • Hi Maureen – Thanks for reading and for sharing your experience! It seems like have a lot in common and are even practically neighbors as the crow flies (though probably an hour apart by car!). Next time I do venture out, I’ll put on my happy hat and make the best of it. But that expression “there’s no place like home” rings so true these days! Hope your garden is holding up through all the heat and rain! Tasha

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  3. Love every thing about your visit I have always wanted to go and see beautiful flowers and I thought I’d enjoy staying there but sounds like not ❤️

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  4. I enjoyed reading about your getaway. I love Ashville. The last time I visited was ten years ago while on travel for my job; my girlfriend joined me for a day of exploring. We didn’t stay there, but we thoroughly enjoyed our tours of the mansion, the gardens, and the winery. I’m glad you got a chance to get away from your everyday duties, we all need to escape and see new things and make new memories. You look lovely in your red dress, has homesteading stopped you from getting your regular pedicures:-)? I’m impressed with your homestead pictures. I’ve been growing a small container garden that has taken over my deck. Since things are growing well, I routinely pick my own salad greens to enjoy. I’m happy you are happy. Arlene

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    • Arlene! I miss you woman! We need a Word Weavers reunion. I can see us all sitting in the tiny house library sharing our work. (Then, we’ll head over to Round Peak Vineyard for a glass of rose to feel like we’ve teleported to France.) I started working on The Crossover again after 6 years of being sidetracked by homestead/garden writing. I finally have the natural systems knowledge to do the story justice.

      No pedicures these days. I have dirty garden feet now! The homestead has come a long way. It blows my mind how with just a little nudge, nature makes all this beauty happen! I am so glad you get to do some abundant container gardening. I know at one point you said deer were eating everything in the yard. Hugs! And seriously… come visit. We’re just 6 car hours apart. And if you don’t mind “glamping” the tiny house loft is yours!

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