10 things I’ve learned about homesteading: Lessons from adventures, successes, and failures on the land

“If you’re thinking about goats for any reason, get yourself a really amazingly wonderful fence. And good luck." Photo: Getty Images “If you’re thinking about goats for any reason, get yourself a really amazingly wonderful fence. And good luck.” Photo: Getty Images

I don’t claim to be an expert on anything in the homesteading realm. But my husband and I have been gardening for 18 years and raising chickens for nine, preserving foods and getting to know our local ecosystem, and we have picked up a few nuggets of knowledge along the way. Here are some of them.

1 It all starts with soil

There’s a lot to know about growing vegetables and herbs, but what always comes first is soil health. The most vibrant seedlings in the world, if planted in poor soil, will not flourish. So building soil—its texture, drainage qualities, and nutrient content—is job number one for the gardener.

That’s not as tricky, or as boring, as it sounds. Over the years , we’ve tried various ways to prepare garden beds, from arduous double-digging to lazy lasagna methods (layers of cardboard and mulch on the soil). Finally, we’ve settled on something pretty simple: Remove grass by the roots with a mattock, then add a lot of compost. A season or two later, turn with a spade fork and voila: ready to plant.

You can use any number of methods, but the key is this: As you continue to grow vegetables in the same spot, your soil needs to be renewed. That can be accomplished with regular additions of compost (we like Panorama Paydirt) or manure, or by growing crops that feed the soil. A great guide to this is John Jeavons’ guide to “biointensive” farming, How to Grow More Vegetables. First published in 1974, the book is now in its eighth printing with a foreword by none other than Alice Waters.

2 You can have too many pickles

Years of experience have taught me that, while preserving an abundant crop feels noble and satisfying, not all of that food will necessarily get eaten. I’ve thrown away five-year-old pickled okra, eight-year-old habanero jelly, and 10-year-old green tomato mincemeat. All of these seemed like a great idea at the time. Only trial and error could teach me what we would really use from our pantry.

These days, I’ll still work hard to preserve certain things—tomatoes being the main one. No jar of diced tomatoes will ever go to waste at our house, so it’s worth it to plant scads of Big Beefs (50 plants this year) and stay up late packing and processing them. We make tomato soup, tomato juice, and tomato sauce, too, if we have enough. I also ferment sauerkraut, freeze portions of pesto, and dry bundles of mint and oregano. Those are the foods I know we’ll eat.

3 Chickens are easy (except when they’re not)

People who raise cows sometimes have to help them give birth. People who raise sheep have to shear them or pay a shearer. People who raise bees have to fend off bears and, well, bees.

Compared with all those species, chickens really are easy—they just don’t need much from their humans. There’s an initial investment of time and money in preparing a coop. Any homesteader worth her wattles will put something together with scrap wood and a roll or two of chicken wire from the hardware store. Some basic research will tell you how many square feet you need per bird and what they prefer their roosting and egg-laying places to look like.

After that, it’s as simple as feeding the birds once a day, filling their water maybe once a week (because you were smart and rigged up a large, hanging water bucket instead of buying a little jug they’ll knock over and poop in) and locking them up at night to keep out the varmints. You can do this! Your neighbor can do this when you’re on vacation!

Once in a while, though, it does get real (see above: varmints). Your birds will die. You will have to deal with the mess. Know this going in, and you won’t be so shocked to find yourself adding a dead chicken to your compost pile, or plucking and gutting it when you’d planned on watching a movie.

4 Fruit trees are worth it

“Plant pears for your heirs.” That’s a maxim we didn’t learn until four years after we planted our little pear trees. Wait a minute, we thought—these things will take a generation to make fruit? No, it turned out; we have since gotten a few pear crops. Though they’re slow to produce, they’re not glacially slow.

The point is that the project of growing fruit trees is full of tricks. Some types will pollinate themselves; some won’t, but will pollinate their neighbors. Some need to be pollinated by neighbors of a different variety. You’ve got to consider diseases, insect pests, and placement of your trees relative to forest trees, like cedar and walnut, which can affect fruit crops. (Edible Landscaping is a source for both trees and info.)

But it’s all worth it when you reach up and pick a pear, apple, che berry (also called mandarin melon berry), or sour cherry off your very own tree. The abundance of a healthy fruit tree is practically the definition of paradise.

Goats are not worth it

We got goats because we wanted to clear some heavily vegetated land. We purchased two pregnant does, the miracle of birth occurred, and suddenly we were the owners of six goats. We realized that half a dozen goats eat a lot of plants, and the lightweight movable fence we were using to contain them had to be reinstalled about every 10 days to keep them in fresh browse.

That’s one thing on open pasture, but again, we’re talking about heavily vegetated land—so clearing new fence lines was a major job. And speaking of the fence, one morning the goats effortlessly jumped it and trotted briskly into the distance. It took several days of walking the woods, calling, and banging feed buckets to get them back. (The sheriff got involved too. Not even joking.)

After a bunch of other shenanigans, we gave our herd back to the man who’d sold us the does in the first place. And that’s how we learned that—for us, at least—goats just ain’t worth the hassle.

If you’re thinking about goats for any reason, get yourself a really amazingly wonderful fence. And good luck.

6 Gardens are food, and not just for humans

Gardening humbles you. Drought and hailstorms and flooding will do that, of course, but what can really bruise the ego are creatures: everybody from vine borers to voles, all the various hungry eaters that will somehow find their way to the crops you were sure you could successfully raise.

Butterflies lay their eggs on your kale, and soon their larvae are chewing the leaves to skeletons. Hornworms strip tomato plants overnight. Squash bugs run around on your pumpkins. And deer—don’t even mention deer.

There are things you can do to prevent all these problems, but the main strategy is to accept it up front: You won’t be the only one eating your garden.

7 Hold on. Write that down!

Where do we turn when we wonder how far apart to transplant our cucumbers, or which salsa recipe from the Ball Blue Book we liked last time, or which month we usually seed parsley? We ask our garden journal.

Stained with soil and missing both covers, the journal records both essential information (planting dates) and entertaining oddities (a bear in the yard). It contains a map of the garden with numbered beds, and brief entries for almost every time we’ve planted or transplanted something. A lot of the harvests get recorded too, along with canning projects. Sometimes we wax poetic about the weather or the progress of spring.

The important thing is not the writing down so much as the looking back. It’s the closest thing we have to a family autobiography.

8 Eat from the wild

We heat our house with scavenged firewood—free warmth all winter. The world is full of resources, we’ve found, including apartment-dwellers and even restaurateurs who will donate food scraps for your home compost pile. Another amazing resource: the plethora of wild edible foods that are yours for the taking, if you know what to look for.

There are the glamorous and elusive morel mushrooms, of course, but there are many others that are easier to find. Wineberries and blackberries want you to notice them. And your yard is likely home to any number of wild greens: purslane, lamb’s quarters, violet, dandelion. But don’t take my word for it; there are real experts around here who can really get you up to speed on wild edibles. Check out the Living Earth School for starters.

9 There’s nothing silly about safety

Over the years, I’ve gotten a little smarter about those ounces of prevention appropriate to outdoor time: hats to keep from boiling in the sun, boots to prevent a snakebite when wading through unweeded beds, and a watchful eye in general. Once I found a black widow spider living in my marigolds. Other times we’ve seen copperheads in our wood pile and behind our shed. This year, a nest of yellowjackets appeared near the fig tree. There’s no need to be fearful, but a little awareness goes a long way.

One of the worst risks, for my money, are ticks. It’s easy to miss them and they can really mess up your year, or even affect your health in the long-term. Do the nightly tick checks: It’s annoying but important.

10 Add fresh herbs

I know people who can tell you exactly which herbs they grow for their wintertime teas and how exactly to make a tincture. I am not one of those people, but I certainly respect all that knowledge—I’ve been known to simply pour boiling water over some mint leaves and call it a party.

Herbalism, I’ve surmised, is a complex endeavor, the kind of practice you can hone over a lifetime. For those who want to embark on that journey, Sacred Plant Traditions is a local hub of knowledge. The rest of us can start small. Plant some mint, oregano, rosemary; use them in your cooking. If you want to get fancy, add some yarrow—it’s a medicinal that can help stop bleeding. At least that’s what I’ve heard.

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