Advice from seasoned homesteaders
What advice do fellow members have for someone just thinking about taking the plunge into homesteading, especially on a, shall we say, limited budget?
Wow. Interesting topic. Early morning thoughts:
1. You can read a lot of books, and that’s a great thing to do during slow winter time, but no one learns to farm except by farming. Dirty hands come first.
2. Looking back, it’s obvious I made a mistake by not emphasizing soil building first. Chris did it much better in his new place this spring by taking the time to thoroughly prepare his garden bed before planting anything in it. Because I did not do that, back at the start I faced several avoidable hurdles: constant weed pressure (and worse: grass and wild raspberry incursions), nutritionally thin soil, and critter predation.
3. Bees. If you can keep them they will greatly increase your production. They’re not essential for the home self-reliance gardener because there are many other pollinators, but bees are particularly eager to help, and even my neighbor’s long-barren apple tree blossomed and produced fruit the first year I kept bees. Plus, there’s nothing like raw honey! And, like your veggies, your self-grown honey will be filled with beneficial local microbes, minerals, and enzymes. The biggest problems are (a) keeping them safe from predators – especially bears, but also raccoons and skunks – and, (b) keeping them alive if your winters are very cold and damp.
4. Build soil, build soil, build soil. As Eliot Coleman said, you’re really farming the soil. If you can cultivate microbial and mycorrhizal life you’ll have healthy plants. Healthy plants don’t attract nearly as much insect predation. This is especially true if you raise heritage breed vegetables, which are hardier.
5. You can speed up soil preparation with silage tarp. It’s increasingly common in organic market gardens, about which I have mixed feelings. However, because I shifted my attention from gardening for a couple years to launch a business, I’m now using it to reclaim some garden space that has returned to meadow. Over 3 weeks it will kill the grasses and weeds, and frustrate new seed. Then I’ll roll it back, add aged (although not composted) cow manure and wood chips, and recover for the winter. In the spring after the snow melts I’ll give it a couple more weeks of good sun heat before removing the tarp, lightly tilling the soil (if needed), and planting. This is new for me, an experiment.
6. Grow heritage breed vegetables fitted for your climate zone. If you can get regional landrace, all the better. Heritage veggies are hardier and more nutritious. If you save the seed from the plants that produce best and taste best in each succeeding generation, you’ll slowly create a landrace of your own, particularly fitted to your particular micro-niche. And you’ll remove yourself from needing outside seed sources. (Don’t feel like you have to chase this aspect right away – learning to build healthy soil is initially more important – but as we move into increasingly uncertain times, it makes sense to not put it off too long.)
7. Don’t start too big. It’s better to start with something small and anchor your hands and brain in the basics before expanding. Then expand in increments. This is especially important if, like me, you want to figure out what you can handle without power tools.
8. Buy the best quality tools you can afford. For the most part you don’t need to own power machines like rototillers or tractors unless you’re going to be a market gardener. You can borrow or rent the tools, or hire someone, as needed – and you’ll want to move toward no till gardening anyhow, although it could take 2-5 years to get there, depending on your soil’s need for supplementation by way of incorporated compost, animal manure, and green manures. What you do need are picks and shovels and rakes and pitchforks and post hole diggers that won’t break. You also need the right shovel or pitchfork for the job you’re doing. Take time to understand why pitchforks are made with different numbers of tines and varying angles, and shovels come short and long handled, point-nosed and blunt-nosed, and with varying angles between handle and shovel head.
9. If you’re producing your own firewood, you want a good chainsaw. Stihl is my preference. I have settled on a 661C with a 25” bar, and a 170 with a 12” bar. If you only get one, get the big one. You can get a shorter bar for lighter work (like trimming) if you want. This year I bought an electric chain sharpener. Oh, man! Is that great! Bucking logs is a lot faster and easier with an always-sharp saw. (I also have a 2-man felling saw, and a couple buck saws in case one day I have no gasoline.) I have a gas-powered log splitter, but I didn’t get it until I mastered splitting by hand. Powered isn’t necessarily faster, imo, but it does save my energy for other things as I age.
10. Focus on learning to grow the core survival foods first. Learn to grow flour corn, dry beans, winter squash, and potatoes. They can keep you alive if nothing else is available.
11. But you really want eggs, too, in your core production, so give serious thought to establishing a permanent flock of ducks or chickens. You want breeds suited to your climate zone. And if you can get some with more more primitive antecedents you’ll have a hardier bird in general. Look for broodiness as well as high egg production. And look for a small hatchery rather than the big commercial chick mills, for a healthier stock. (I use Freedom Ranger Hatchery.) If your flock is going to be contained, use a deep litter style run and hen house. The nitrogen-infused wood chips (from the run) and wood shavings (from the house) are great additions to the garden and orchard after composting. (You can compost in place in a section of garden you’re not using the current season, but use silage tarp, or similar, to help the decomposition.)
12. Plant a food forest. That’s Plan B, in case the garden doesn’t grow or the critters eat it first, or marauders steal obvious foodstuffs, and there’s no grocery store to turn to. Since an orchard is a good idea anyhow, might as well make all or some of it a self-reinforcing food forest. It’s a long-range task, so if you can’t afford the time or money to install it all at once, just do a bit on it every year. I also like the idea of having a robust enough food forest that I can help strengthen my neighborhood by giving away perennial plant cuttings or seedlings when/if that becomes important. The extra food in a food forest also makes it easier to take in new people (for example, family) and feed everyone while scaling up annual production.
Spot on VT!
I teach Permaculture and one of the core tenets is observation. Ideally observe your land for a full year.
Develop a master plan knowing full well that it will change. This gives you a road map and the ability to capitalize on serendipity: free chicks that materialize long before you are ready, cuttings from neighbors (I once started a vineyard from a neighbor’s prunings.)
Your first “livestock” should be red wigglers in a worm bin. I use the castings for top dressing and that stuff is black gold.
Don’t take it too seriously and be willing to experiment. If it ain’t fun, it ain’t sustainable.
Thank you. I have read a handful of your posts, and I appreciate your thoughts.
We’re working on building soils and gardening at our suburban home. It’s been about six years now, and we have this beautiful black soil that retains moisture nicely.
However, the longer-term plan is to find two to five acres and expand the garden, start an orchard, and add some ducks and chickens.
What do you use for a silage tarp? We have another spot in the yard that we would like to convert to garden space for potatoes.
Great advice! I remember when I was first beginning this path I read Bill Mollison‘s introduction to Perma culture. I read Ruth Stout’s mulching methods, A One Straw Revolution, the Square Foot Gardner, countless issues of Mother Earth News, Organic Gardening all the way back through the 70s, which was chock-full of inventive ideas. I’ve always been a gardener though my whole life so I think developing a relationship with plants no matter what size of area that you live is just crucial.. Because I didn’t really study my land thoroughly for a year prior to planting I did make some early mistakes that have turned out OK in the long run but also I focused on putting in plants that would take the longest to get going like asparagus, grape vines, fruit trees..
I was gone from the garden for 23 days and came back to tons of weeds. My sweet potatoes are 107 days in the dirt and supposed to be ready to harvest around 120 days. Here’s a photo.
Does anybody think my sweet potatoes are ready to harvest yet? Or should I let them go another 13 days?
Harvest, cure skin,eat,store etc.
what variety Ga Jet?
The sweet potato variety is “Vardaman.” I ordered a dozen slips from the “tatorman” at Georges Plant Farm in Martin, Tennessee. He sent me 18 of them.
I figured we would just eat them, but we have 17 plants that survived and I’m hoping there is a bag of potatoes beneath each one of them!
Don’t know how to cure the skin. Guess I had better look that up. Your advice is welcome if you know how to do that. Thanks!
Curing sweet potatoes, I carefully spread mine out on a hay wagon parked under a shade tree. If calling for rain easily roll into barn, then back out under the shade tree.
They cure well with relatively high humidity and warm temperatures
Well…for now, we live in a condo 200 steps from the ocean… No hay wagons here…not what I would call “resilient.” But we are making the best of it for now. (Spent the last week looking at acreage in North Georgia. It sure is expensive! Probably not going to be able to afford much.)
We have a small patio out back and could lay them out there I suppose. It’s plenty humid here in south Georgia.
How long do they cure?