The Weekend Homesteader: A Twelve-Month Guide to Self-Sufficiencyby Anna Hess
The Weekend Homesteader is organized by month—so whether it’s January or June you’ll find exciting, short projects that you can use to dip your toes into the vast ocean of homesteading without getting overwhelmed. If you need to fit homesteading into a few hours each weekend and would like to have fun while doing it, these projects will be/i>
The Weekend Homesteader is organized by month—so whether it’s January or June you’ll find exciting, short projects that you can use to dip your toes into the vast ocean of homesteading without getting overwhelmed. If you need to fit homesteading into a few hours each weekend and would like to have fun while doing it, these projects will be right up your alley, whether you live on a forty-acre farm, a postage-stamp lawn in suburbia, or a high rise.
You'll learn about backyard chicken care, how to choose the best mushroom and berry species, and why and how to plant a no-till garden that heals the soil while providing nutritious food. Permaculture techniques will turn your homestead into a vibrant ecosystem and attract native pollinators while converting our society's waste into high-quality compost and mulch. Meanwhile, enjoy the fruits of your labor right away as you learn the basics of cooking and eating seasonally, then preserve homegrown produce for later by drying, canning, freezing, or simply filling your kitchen cabinets with storage vegetables. As you become more self-sufficient, you'll save seeds, prepare for power outages, and tear yourself away from a full-time job, while building a supportive and like-minded community. You won't be completely eliminating your reliance on the grocery store, but you will be plucking low-hanging (and delicious!) fruits out of your own garden by the time all forty-eight projects are complete.
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The Weekend HomesteaderA Twelve-Month Guide to Self-Sufficiency
By Anna Hess
Skyhorse PublishingCopyright © 2012 ANNA HESS
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAPRIL (October Down Under)
Find room to homestead
GOAL: Seek out growing space even if you don't own any land
TIME: 1 hour to 2 hours
If you're lucky enough to own or rent a substantial acreage in the country, this exercise isn't for you. Your problems will probably consist of reining in your enthusiasm so that your homestead doesn't sprawl out over the entire back forty and drive you nuts. But many modern homesteaders have a very different dilemma—they live in the city and don't have any land to call their own. Luckily, opportunities abound for growing your own food even if you live in a high-rise or ritzy suburban neighborhood.
Suburbanites have one easy growing space close at hand—the lawn. Depending on whom you talk to, Americans care for somewhere between 14 million and 40 million acres of lawn. That's a twentieth to an eighth of an acre of potential garden for each man, woman, and child—plenty of space to grow all our own vegetables and a significant portion of our fruit and meat.
But what will the neighbors think if you turn your verdant lawn into a potato field? One option is to leave the street side impeccably manicured and stuff all your homesteading into the shielded backyard. Or you could build a stealth chicken tractor so cute that your neighbors can't find anything to complain about as the flock grazes (and fertilizes) your grass. (Check your zoning laws and stick to hens for best results.)
Edible landscapers consider it a challenge to grow tasty food in a beautiful fashion. Several fruits and vegetables are so aesthetically pleasing (and unusual) that most nosy neighbors won't even know you're raising food in your flower beds. In the annual garden, look for Mexican sour gherkins, Swiss chard with brilliantly multicolored stalks, scarlet runner beans, and okra with cheery, Rose-of-Sharon-like flowers. I see ornamental cabbages, sweet potatoes, sunflowers, and amaranth all the time, suggesting that if you choose a variety that is tasty as well as pretty, your garden can blend right in.
An even easier sell (but more costly to install) is a perennial planting with stunning fruits like hardy kiwis (originally brought to this country as ornamentals), blueberries (with their brilliant fall foliage), and peaches or cherries for spring blooms. In many upscale neighborhoods, edible landscapers will come and turn your lawn into a fruit paradise that pleases the eye just as much as it does the belly—for a fee, of course.
Container gardens and house plants
What about apartment dwellers who have no lawn? If you've got a sunny balcony or window, you can grow a considerable amount of food in pots. Those of you with very limited space should focus on herbs and perhaps a tomato, although I've known folks who potted a single sweet potato slip in the spring, watched the beautiful foliage trail down the side of their building all summer, and then enjoyed several pounds of tasty tubers for Thanksgiving.
Light is one of the most important characteristics determining whether your container garden will thrive or fail. If your growing space receives sun for only part of the day, stick to growing plants that produce edible leaves—herbs like thyme and chives, leafy greens, and lettuce are better choices than peppers and tomatoes.
Next, consider your soil. Container vegetables thrive in fluffy soil chock-full of organic matter, so start a worm bin if you don't want to spend an arm and a leg buying potting soil and fertilizer. Then you need to commit to feeding the plants at least once a month with a high nutrient amendment, like compost tea. Remember, container plants don't have the ability to reach deep into the earth looking for food and water, so you have to provide for all their needs.
Beyond your yard
If you've used up your handkerchief-sized lawn and one sunny window, it's time to look for more space in the local community. Many cities have community gardens where you can rent a plot of land and raise whatever you like, working beside friendly gardeners who are often willing to show you tricks of the trade. In the spring, these community gardens are often filled to the gills, but gardeners drop like flies in the summer heat, so you might be able to spread out into two or three plots for your fall planting.
Less affluent neighborhoods often have empty lots where condemned buildings have been torn down. If you talk to the owner, promising to keep the lot from growing up in a mass of brambles and weeds, he might let you turn the whole area into a garden.
An even better arrangement is to talk to neighbors just down the road about growing space that may be going to waste. Many elderly gardeners are unable to keep their large garden plot thriving—they'd probably be thrilled to share a bit of land with an enthusiastic new homesteader (especially one who leaves the occasional basket of carrots on their back porch).
Churches, schools, and other public facilities are great spots for expanding your homestead, since you'll likely serve as an ambassador for the idea of cheerful self-sufficiency. If you're civic-minded, you can include students in the project, teaching them to grow some of their own vittles. Maybe your church would be willing to sink some of the cash they use to buy canned goods for the needy into a garden that would feed the poor more wholesome, locally grown food?
Finally, don't get stuck on the notion of vegetable gardens as the only way to expand your homestead into the neighborhood. A friend of mine shares a clothesline with her neighbor—unless you're pinning up clothes for an extra large family, one clothesline can easily serve several households. You could collect food scraps from your neighbors to feed chickens or rabbits hidden away in your garage, or just to fill your compost bin. Think outside the box and you'll make friends while expanding your homestead.
Survey your site
GOAL: Figure out the assets and problems presented by your yard and community
TIME: 2 hours to 5 hours
What's the best spot in your yard to plant an apple tree or plan a chicken run? Is there free food going to waste in your neighborhood? This exercise walks you through mapping the important features of your yard and community so that your homestead will thrive.
Map of your yard
Start out by drawing a map of your own habitat. If you live on a large parcel of land, make two maps—one that shows your whole property and then a close-up version that illustrates the most-used zones close to home. Mark the location of your house and the edges of your yard. Add trees, shrubs, vines, your vegetable garden, the chicken coop, the doghouse, and anything else you see. If you have a septic field, include it on the map, along with any buried power, phone, or water lines. Sloped ground is important to designate, as are potential sources of water like creeks and ponds.
Some of you are probably tearing out your hair by now. "I can't draw!" you're telling me. "I failed art!" Please don't worry if you're not a prime draftsman—no one needs to see this map except you. If you're having trouble drawing to scale, you can pace off distances from your house to a tree, the length of your fence line, and so forth, then use a ruler to mark off approximate distances on your map. Graph paper makes this step easier since you can set a square to equal a foot, two feet, or ten feet and do away with the ruler. But I don't want you to think that this map has to be perfectly to scale and rendered like a blueprint—it's just a memory aid, so make it as sketchy as you like.
Once you have a somewhat accurate rendering of your yard, scan it into the computer and print out a few copies (or just photocopy the map). Put the original away somewhere safe so that you can make more copies if necessary, and move on to the next step.
Every living thing is affected by the amount of sun and shade in its habitat, so you're going to devote an entire map to outlining the sunniest and shadiest spots in your yard. The first step is to mark north on your map and look for any obstructions to sunlight, like hills, trees, or buildings. Get up at dawn one morning this week and trace in the shadows when the sun is low, then repeat this endeavor in the evening just before the sun sets. If you're technologically inclined, consider using Google SketchUp to designate parts of your yard that are in full sun even during the shortest day of the year.
Next, think about areas that aren't shady now but will be soon. Draw the canopy spread your fruit trees will exhibit when fully grown (see December's "Plant a fruit tree" project for average sizes), and add on the shade line from the porch you plan to build.
You should now have a good idea of the sunniest and shadiest parts of your yard. Sun is good for your garden, your chicken coop in winter, your beehive, and your clothesline. Shade is perfect for relaxation during hot weather, for summer chicken habitats, and for planting northern species (like gooseberries) at the southern limit of their range.
After sunlight, the most important factor influencing plant life is soil quality. An exercise in January will walk you through sending your soil off for scientific testing, but for now we're going to focus on what you can see with the naked eye.
Start with sogginess. During heavy rains, are there parts of the yard that puddle up or turn into a muddy mess? If so, mark these on your map. Even if you've never seen your yard after a rain, you can get an idea of swampy areas from the plants growing there. In mowed yards, sedges and rushes will often grow up in waterlogged spots. These plants look like grasses to the untrained observer but are easy to distinguish once you start paying attention. "Sedges have edges," meaning that their stems are triangular in cross-section rather than round (easy to tell by spinning a stem between your thumb and finger), and sedges also produce flowers and fruit that look different from grass seed heads. "Rushes are round," meaning that these plants have stems that are totally circular, a bit like grass but lacking any flat leaf blades. Rushes also tend to be darker green than other grasslike plants, while sedges tend to be more yellow green.
Next, look for soil fertility. Are there areas where grass struggles to grow and patches of bare ground show through? There's probably something wrong with the soil there (or it's just a high-traffic part of the yard, which is also good to know). Large expanses of broomsedge (a tall grass that turns red brown during dry weather) are indicators of poor soil, especially in fields that aren't mowed down into a lawn regularly. If you're living on the site of an old farm, you might also find very fertile areas where the family dumped their compost or where their outhouse once stood, often marked by lush stands of wild blackberries.
If you want, you can go a step further and dig up a spadeful of soil from several spots in your yard. Is the soil all the same, or does the dirt look darker (more fertile) in some areas than in others? Is your earth hard to pierce with a shovel (a sign of clay), full of rocks, or sandy and easy to spade up? Are many worms present (a sign of highly organic matter)?
Each soil type provides prime conditions for some plants but will make others struggle. For example, we spent years trying to grow fruit trees in a waterlogged part of the yard before learning that we had to create mounds of raised soil before planting or the trees' roots would drown. On the other hand, this area would be a great spot to install a pond or plant cranberries. The best soil for your vegetable garden will be fertile, not too wet, and made up of a mixture of sand, clay, and organic matter. Meanwhile, a field of broomsedge might be a good location for a chicken run since these animals' high-fertility manure will naturally improve poor soil.
Nodes and paths
The next map you'll draw is a traffic diagram of your yard. We all like to believe that we start with a clean slate and can do anything we want to with our habitat, but the truth is that your dog is going to run from the house to the garage every time your spouse comes home from work, and the kids aren't going to follow that beautiful, winding path and will instead cut straight across your flower bed. It's easier to figure out where natural paths lie in advance and then work around them rather than spend your days yelling at Fido when he walks in the wrong spot.
Nodes are a good way of discovering natural paths. A node is any spot in your yard (or just outside the boundaries) that receives a lot of attention from any human or animal in your family. Every door is a natural node, and so is the spot where you park your car, the pond your dog likes to drink out of, and the tree your kids love to climb. Most of us are pretty linear, and if you draw straight lines between your yard's nodes, you've probably discovered the natural paths.
Your traffic map will give you an idea of where to create mulched or stone pathways to prevent mudholes during rainy days, and where to place gaps in raised beds so that your dog doesn't make his own hole right through your prize tomato plant. On the other hand, high-maintenance crops or herbs you use often should be planted close to a main thoroughfare so that they get attention and are cared for and harvested regularly.
Map of your community
The final step in this weekend's exercise is to create a diagram of your community. The simplest way to start is to go to Google Maps and print out a map showing the area within a few miles of your house. Your community map will vary drastically depending on whether you live in a walkable urban area and spend most of your time within a mile or two of home or whether you live in a rural setting and have to drive twenty or thirty miles every time you head to the store.
You should tweak this map to focus on what's important to you, whether that's bagged autumn leaves to mulch your garden or discarded building supplies to turn into a shed out back. Mark down sources of free garden fertility, like the coffee shop that throws away its grounds, the mill with excess sawdust, or the stable with piles of manure. Neighborhood fruit trees are another natural fit for this map since many city dwellers have forgotten what to do with wormy apples and leave them to rot on the ground; if you know when the June apples two blocks over are ripe, it would be worth marking the event on your calendar so you can ask to harvest some found fruit. A community garden and the home of an elderly neighbor whose vegetable patch is starting to flag from lack of energy are worth noting if you have limited growing space—both could turn into supplemental garden plots for you. Consider areas you walk or drive to regularly—can you pick up out-of-date newspapers from a store on your way to work and turn them into worm-bin bedding?
You may also want to consider negative ways that your community might impact your homestead. Do you have a neighbor who's concerned with tidiness? If so, it might be a good idea to put your clothesline out of his sight. Does another neighbor spray herbicides along the property line? Best keep your vegetable garden a few feet back from the boundary so you don't end up eating poisons. Is there a polluting industrial facility within a few miles that will send windborne pollution in your direction? Perhaps a windbreak of bamboo or trees on that side of your property would capture the chemicals and keep them out of your yard.
What do I do with all these maps?
Hopefully, the simple act of making these maps has gotten your creative juices flowing. Maybe you're itching to put in an herb bed right outside the kitchen door or to approach that neighbor two houses down whose luscious peaches are attracting yellow jackets. Feel free to let the maps guide your interests.
Excerpted from The Weekend Homesteader by Anna Hess Copyright © 2012 by ANNA HESS. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Anna Hess dreamed about moving back to the land ever since her parents dragged her off their family farm at the age of eight. She worked as a field biologist and nonprofit organizer before acquiring fifty-eight acres and a husband, then quit her job to homestead full time. She admits that real farm life involves a lot more hard work than her childhood memories entailed, but the reality is much more fulfilling and she loves pigging out on sun-warmed strawberries and experimenting with no-till gardening, mushroom propagation, and chicken pasturing. Visit her at www.WaldenEffect.org.
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Everyone with a backyard should read this book
This gives you month by month steps on how to prep everything. It was OK. A few tips and some good kid activities.
This is the Maple Oak Biking Path!!! You can walk, bike,hike,or run whenever you want!