Homesteading and Livestock

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On the first gray and wet day in April we finally got to plant the first trees in our new orchard. It's been a long time coming but by letting it take so long, we've also been able to observe the land and improve some of the original ideas.

The inspiration for this orchard came when we visited our friend John Bunker in Palermo, ME. He is establishing an orchard, or rather an edible landscape, that in many ways goes against the traditional “fruit trees on a mowed lawn” idea. This acre is wild looking, with numerous other berry shrubs, herbs and flowers growing in a jumble among the fruit trees and the stumps and the brush from the cleared trees has been left right there, with the intent to mimic a natural landscape. He's reasoning is that nature can take care of itself and that fruit trees grown in a polyculture often needs very little human care (spraying, for example) to do well. But mostly what I saw when I looked at what he'd done was the chance to turn that God-forgotten piece of land in the back of our clearing into something, a project that up until then had felt so overwhelming, I couldn't even bring myself to try. When seeing John's place I saw that even the least amount of effort would not only be okay, but in some ways desirable.

Here are 5 steps that we took to create our backyard orchard.


1. We cleared the trees. Very few of the living trees in this area were worth milling into lumber so almost all of them got cut into firewood. At any given year, we don't fell more trees for this purpose than we have time to process and that we can fit in our woodshed so this alone stretched out over almost 3 winters. Some of the dead wood we stacked in a long mound along the back line and some we simply heaped together in a big pile right in the orchard.

2. Get scion and graft. For most of the apple trees that we planted we gathered scion from trees growing on the island and we grafted them all on standard rootstock. The best time to gather scion is while the trees are still dormant and then keep the scion cold until April when the grafting takes place. We could certainly have planted the newly grafted rootstock immediately but since the area has not been ready until this spring it gave us a good chance to grow the young trees in a nursery in our garden to be better able to keep a close eye on how they were doing and have them be better protected from deer and rodents.

3. Observe the land and act accordingly. More than anything, this long laps in time between deciding to do an orchard and actually planting the trees gave us the necessary time to observe what the land looked like and how the water flows. Had we planted the area that first spring we would have missed the fact that this is a very wet area and we might have ended up loosing some of the trees because of that. Twice now we've had a friend with a small backhoe improving the ditches around the area and still more drainage might be needed.

This realization, that the seemingly slow pace of this project allowed us to do it right from the beginning, is a good reminder that homesteading is a long term commitment and a long term lifestyle and that major project, like an orchard, should be viewed in the same prospective.

4. Determine the grid. The size of the area lent itself to a 25x25 feet grid in which to plant the trees. Apples grown on standard rootstock can get impressively big if they are let to and this is really the closest they should be planted to allow for full size growth. As of now, we can fit 6 trees, with more to come once we've opened up for more sun. In this grid we also plan to grow peach trees – they are small and comparatively short lived (12-15 years) so they will not crowd the apple trees and will die before the apple trees crowd them.

5. Make the sites and plant. Due to the wet ground in our orchard we put some extra effort into the actual sites where the trees were to be planted. Instead of just digging a hole in the ground we built it up as a sort of raised bed to elevate the young roots away from the wetness. We used the half rotten logs that we had piled up on the side, pieces that were roughly 8-10 inches in diameter and 4 feet long. They formed the base of a square that we built up with thinner pieces laid out diagonal across the corner and then we beefed the whole thing up with brush. We took soil from the excavation of the ditches and put around the square so it looked like a mound and once we stuck the tree in the middle filled in the hole with a mix of the same soil and compost. As the grand finale we mulched the whole site with seaweed. To make a raised bed like this will hold the soil in place better than a mound made from soil only. Over time the brush will break down and provide nutrients for the trees.


While the actual planting of the trees that day in April felt like the biggest and most significant step, much of the possible successful outcome will be thanks to the preparation and thought that went into this space long before this spring. The work in this area is far from over, even though for the moment we greatly enjoy the sight of the tiny leaves forming as a beacon of hope for homegrown fruit for generations to come.

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I've gotta repost this bit of wisdom, that appeared in Michigan Out-of-Doors Magazine, 30 years ago. "I once published a true story about a moron, a friend of a friend, who was, shamefully, from Marquette, MI. There were open dumps in those days (1985), and people would park there at night to watch bears feed on trash. This guy was drinking beer (and driving, so you know how smart he was). The more beer he consumed the more convinced he became that he could overpower a bear.... He was, after all, considered a real tough guy in local taverns. My friend, in the seat beside him, told Mr. Tough that he didn't think that wrestling a bear was his brightest idea. Mr. Tough took that as a challenge to his manhood. He exited the car, sat his beer on the fender, and approached a smaller (he wasn't that drunk) bear, crouched low, like a WWF wrestler, as he approached. The bear let him approach to 6 feet, then, in my friend's words, " just unwound." Faster than the eye could follow, it slammed him in the chest with a forepaw, shredding clothes and skin with it's extremely sharp claws, knocking the 200-pound man back a half-dozen feet, until he was stopped by a pile of garbage bags. He should have lay still, but the guy squalled like a baby, flailing his limbs, and the little bear took that as a sign that he still wanted to fight. The little bear leapt atop him, grabbed his thigh in its paws, and sank its teeth fully into the meat. The guy really squealed, then, and the bear, satisfied that he was now harmless, ran into the forest.

At the hospital (Marquette General), the new one-time Rabies vaccination had just been introduced; but the doctor thought it best that this genius receive the old treatment, which was one injection in the stomach, with a very long needle, every day for 10 days - just to be sure, you know (and, I think, to make the experience as unpleasant for Mr. Tough as possible). I only LOOK brave when I chase a bear off - in fact, there's no doubt in my mind who's more able to win a fight. I just know bears."

Read more of Len's adventures in The Tracker's Handbook.

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With spring officially here, days are filled with a billion and one things on the to-do list. How to pick and choose which comes first is always a challenge.

There’s the ancient fallen apple tree, one I’ve been waiting to take scions from in an attempt to propagate more of this unidentified fruit. The taste of these apples is a combination of fruit and flower. There are many apple trees on this property, but this one in particular produces a fruit I’ve not found in any store or farm stand.

There’s the pond, finally uncovered from the wrath of winter’s snow and ice. Each spring, I drain as much of it down as possible to start fresh with clear water and a bag full of new inhabitants in the form of algae eaters. The ducks are particularly happy when this chore is finished.

There’s the pine tree that landed across the fence and into another apple tree. It went down in a gust on a winter day when storms were blowing up over the Gulf of Maine and right across the farm. The sheep have been enjoying bark from it’s limbs and trunk all winter, using it as a mineral and vitamin supplement to keep them going through the long, dark months.

Romeo & Ariel

Then, there are the garden beds. My kitchen garden, the one right outside the new back door, has softened and seems ready to accept the hoe. Its dirt is a deep, dark brown. I’m adding the ashes from the fireplace and heading to the sheep compost pile to add carts full of sheepy richness. It will be ready to accept this year’s crop of basils and parsley. Can you really have too much? I’ve enjoyed Lemon and Thai Pesto all winter. Each time I open a jar, I’m reminded of warm summer days. It helps when the snows are blowing sideways and the temps are, once again, down in the teens.

There’s the dairy barn. Overwintering for this building means deep compost, all needing hand forking out. It’s a big job. I usually wait until the nights are a bit warmer, just to give the girls some nice bedding under them during the transition from winter to spring. In the fall, we start with a couple inches of fresh soft shavings. The girls do the rest throughout the winter, pulling hay from their racks and laying it where they need it. Goats are fussy eaters. They selectively eliminate the bits out of the hay they either don’t like the taste of, don’t have the particular nutrition in it they need, or just because they want a softer, drier bed. No matter. I indulge them, and their feet and legs benefit from not standing on a cold hard surface all winter.


There is a method to our madness in farming. It comes in many forms. Everybody seems to have their own, but it always seems to come down to the same thing: it’s a lot of work. The reward comes in the form of lazy summer days with gardens bursting at the seams with fresh vegetables and herbs. While we work away in spring, uncovering and freshening beds, pruning and trimming to let sunshine in for bigger juicier apples and other fruits, cleaning and wiping and painting and hauling and digging out from winter, the spring sunshine warms our backs and lightens our hearts.

At Bittersweet, Romeo is growing into his amazing lamby self. He is enjoying days playing in the pasture with Ariel, our other great lamb from last spring. He’s romping about, doing that springy lamby thing with Buttermilk. Seeing each other from behind the old pine tree or from across the spread, they run to greet each other. Just before they literally run into each other, they stop in their tracks, gently lower their heads, and touch each other on the forehead. Connections.

Romeo cuddling

Romeo and I are soon visiting Story Hour at our Jackson Memorial Library here in St. George to read the tiny book he inspired me to write. The message is about building confidence in kids. I’ve found a farm to be a place where that can happen.

In a few short weeks, goat kids will arrive. Frannie is up first and her big Mama belly is starting to grow at the seams.

Mama Frannie

She’s lazier now, slower to get up and down. In her gentle motherly way, she looks at me with her big doe eyes and comes to my side. She leans against my leg and once again, I pat her head and remind her, I’ll be there for her when the time comes. Connections. I don’t know who benefits from it more, her or me.

Welcome spring! We’ve waited a long time for your arrival. Thanks for coming back to visit, even if it’s only for a short while.

Dyan Redick calls herself “an accidental farmer with a purpose.” Bittersweet Heritage Farm, located on the St. George peninsula of Maine, is a certified Maine State Dairy offering cheeses made with milk from a registered Saanen goat herd, a seasonal farm stand full of wool from a Romney cross flock, goat milk soap, lavender woolens, and whatever else strikes Dyan’s fancy. Her farm is also an extension of her belief that we should all gain a better understanding of our food sources, our connection to where we live, and to the animals with whom we share the earth.

Photos by Dyan Redick

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A swale is not a complicated technique,  nor is it something new. Swales are nothing more than water harvesting ditches on contour. On contour simply means level. The contour lines of a topographical map are level, at least on a large scale. Another way of putting it is to think of the jagged shoreline of a lake. Wherever water meets land is level and on contour. 


The benefit of using swales, even on a small scale, are: 1. Collects water, slows it down and spreads it out. 2. Soaks water into the ground hydrating the surrounding area and recharging the water table. 3. Prevents erosion or reduces erosion from the landscape. 4. Reduces the need for irrigation if used in conjunction with food and fuel growing systems.

Our land is sloped and even though we get adequate rainfall each year (average of 30 inches) most of it quickly runs off and is wasted.

On our homestead we just completed nearly 200 yards of swales. This is not a large project by any means but it will add our homestead greatly in the coming years. We combined the addition of growing systems with the swale in order to gain the maximum benefit. We have planted a combination of fuel wood: black locust and honey locust which are also nitrogen fixing trees and forage trees and food producing trees: fruit and nut.

Swale Construction 

For constructing the swales we used very simple tools like an A-frame level. This is a simple device for determining an accurate contour line. In this case we used two means of verification: a simple bubble level fixed to the A-frame and a plumb bob with markings. Having both of these are redundant but I like redundancy! A neighbor of ours also helped us out with providing a tractor with a bucket loader. This is not the ideal tool for making swales (excavators and bull dozers would of worked much better) but it is what we had available to us and we appreciated our neighbor lending us a had immensely. The tractor combined with shovels and, of course, sweat equity made for a successful venture. We cut swales on contour and made very simple spillways in order to shed excess water should we get a large rain event. 

A Frame Level

In the weeks and months to come we will, hopefully, start to see some of the fruits of our labor. We plan on building more swales in the future but these were the mainframe swales we put in to start improving the land.


We will be talking more about swales this summer during our upcoming workshops in June and July. Homestead Workshop

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I have been attending the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival with my husband for sixteen years, since the first year we were married and farming. Back then we would dream about keeping sheep on our newly purchased pasture as we walked through the stalls of sheep—Jacob, Barbados, Merino, Southdown and all the rest. We would laugh about putting a couple haybales in the back of the outback and bringing home a sheep or two. Then we had a baby and we’d toddle him past the sheep and say what fun sheep would be to keep. Our kids grew up loving our visits to Sheep and Wool. I could sit on the hill and watch the professional sheep shearers all day, as they clip beautiful fleeces off beautiful sheep. Maryland's own talented shearer, Emily Chamelin, gives wonderful demonstrations of sheep shearing. 

After my friends taught me to knit, I had to attend two days, one as an aspiring shepherd with my family and one on my own as knitter and collector of yarn. Booth after booth of lovely yarn. I learned wet-felting and needle-felting, and I gleaned the booths for the beautiful wool roving, in stunning natural colors and vibrant dyed ones. Every fiber art of your dreams, it is all represented in the booths of this festival, one of the largest of its kind.

Some years I attend with a new crafty inspiration, ready for fuel. Sometimes I go without inspiration at all, and I see what catches me. A couple years ago, my husband spied a felt wizard hat, so I came home and made him one. Last year I came home with a spinning wheel. This year a needle-felted lion caught my eye.

Wool Lion

Sara from Sarafina Fiber Arts, a new vendor at the Sheep and Wool Festival, made this incredible creature. As my friend said, “It doesn’t even look fake!” On my third visit to her booth, I figured out what I wanted to do. I purchased supplies from Sara to step up my needle-felting skills. I have spent some time needle-felting animals, mainly focusing on facial features. Now I can add wire structures to achieve more detail, structural support, and moveable parts. I teach homeschool kids how to needle-felt and I am excited to step up the instruction I can offer them.

She has clever tips and structural materials to make the small details feasible, like flexible wire for the fingers of a raccoon. Her tutorials are free online, and she sells the perfect wool blends and wires and tools to make it all come alive. I’m pretty excited about it.


People always ask why I don’t keep sheep. I like to make so many things in my life from the source—growing and making food, milking goats for my yogurt, handmade craft items. Why not grow my own yarn? I have my answer down pat—I love getting to the source of things. But I can’t do it all. This is one arena that I love to shop, from other people with a fiber arts passion. A wise friend told me I could buy all the yarn I want and I wouldn’t approach the cost of keeping sheep, and I’d have a better variety of yarn. I take her advice to heart. It is still tempting, every year at this time, to buy a spinner’s flock.  

Did we go home with a sheep in the back seat of the car this year? No. Not even an Angora Goat Buck, but that was a close call. Maybe next year.

Go to my farm blog to see more creations from the Sarafina booth.

Ilene White Freedman operates House in the Woods organic CSA farm with her husband, Phil, in Frederick, Maryland. The Freedmans are one of six 2013 Mother Earth News Homesteaders of the Year. Ilene blogs about making things from scratch, putting up the harvest, gardening and farm life at MOTHER EARTH NEWS and House in the Woods, easy to follow from our Facebook Page. For more about the farm, go to House in the Woods.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


I’m not sure how my conversation about the $250,000 mortgage came up, but it got me thinking about two very different ways that young people can get started in life. There’s the “mortgage-now-pay later” approach that’s grown so popular over the last 50 years, then there’s the old-fashioned, pay-as-you-go “bootstraps” approach that I still have faith in. Let me explain why.

 The conversation started when an old friend told me about his daughter and son-in-law and the big new home they built. I remember the day I bumped into these kids as they were walking into the bank a few years ago to get approval for their mortgage. I wasn’t sure if I should wish them luck or suggest they turn around and run. The ability to get into your own large, custom-built home before you’re 30 is an exciting and prestigious thing, but the mortgage lifestyle that makes it possible doesn’t come cheap. The price was a $250,000 debt that will end up costing nearly three quarters of a million after-tax dollars before it’s paid off – assuming the mortgage holders can hang on to their jobs for the next 30 years.

 So what’s the alternative to a mortgage for young people who don’t want to rent? Even in the credit-crazy world we live in, I still say the build-it-yourself, pay-as-you-go, live-with-less-for-a-while bootstraps approach is best if you can pull it off. And not just because it costs less and offers more freedom.

 Growing as you can afford to, and working for the things you want but don’t yet have, brings more joy and satisfaction in the end. I know this from my own experience building my homestead from scratch starting back in 1985. And my son, Robert, and his new wife Edyta, are showing me this truth all over again.

Robert is 24 years old, but when he was 18 he got the notion to build a cabin on a small corner of our homestead property. What better way for a young man to grow in competence and stamina than to take on a project like this? I was all for it. There’s nothing like struggle and sweat and accomplishment to turn a boy into a man, and that’s one of the things the cabin project has done for Robert.

Fast forward to September 2014, and my wife and I are watching Robert at the front of a church in Poland, ready to put a wedding ring on the finger of a young lady from Warsaw who he met online a couple of years earlier. Robert and Edyta could have chosen any life they wanted for themselves, but they’ve chosen to live on our family homestead, building slowly as they can afford to, including modest expansion plans on that cabin Robert built, turning it into a full-time home.

Before you start thinking how rurally romantic all this is, let me remind you that the reality of romance is often just plain hard work and deprivation – at least in part. With labor underway right now expanding the cabin amid the scramble of all our other homestead work, Robert and Edyta are sleeping on mattresses on a floor in a place with no bathroom nor running water. They don’t have a kitchen of their own, but cook and eat and wash up with the rest of our extended family at the main homestead house. They have no vehicle, but borrow our 25-year-old F150 for the times they leave the homestead once every few weeks. Six days a week it’s work from 7am to 6pm – sometimes evenings, too. When the expanded cabin is finally ready to move into, it will be warm and bright and pretty, but it will still be only 800 square feet in size.

 So if building a mortgage-free life for young people isn’t a picnic, what’s the benefit? Why not just get everything you want right away, funded by credit and live like normal people?

Besides the fact that bootstrap living means you pay a lot less money for things in the end, there are other benefits delivered by this out-of-fashion lifestyle. Big benefits. Bootstrap living forces you to become more innovative and competent, doing more for yourself directly and gaining skills as a result. Robert can frame a wall, shingle a roof, climb a ladder, set up scaffolding, negotiate his way around a lumberyard, wire a circuit, design simple structures and keep a building site clean. He’d know none of these things if his name were on a mortgage right now.

 Having grown up in the city of Warsaw, Edyta never stacked firewood, climbed ladders with paint brush in hand or operated power tools. As it turns out she has a remarkable aptitude for all these things and she’s getting better all the time. Working on their tiny home has made them bigger people, but it’s also delivered joy that money can’t buy. There really is something deeply energizing about working for yourself on projects of your own, where the fruits of your labor come in direct proportion to how well you perform.

Robert’s original cabin had no electricity, and it required a lot of work to get the whole place wired and energized. This meant electric light was a real novelty and a hard-won feature of the expanded place, and we all find ourselves happily turning the lights ON and OFF, just for the thrill of it. Perhaps I’m easily amused, but I still call it a good thing when an investment of sweat equity results in the ability to enjoy so many little things that often go unnoticed when we just buy them ready-to-use.

 I’m hopeful as I see the tiny home movement taking off, and requests for construction plans and instructions for building Robert and Edyta’s cabin have come in often enough from my readers that I put together a video construction course. People are now building this cabin across North America and even on the other side of the world. Here’s a quick video intro.

 The mortgage-free bootstraps lifestyle isn’t for everyone, and Robert and Edyta have the right situation to make it happen. Not everyone does, I know. They’re also patient, easy to get along with in an extended family situation, and willing to submit to wisdom they might not recognize immediately on their own. Their plans would never happen without these qualities. All this said, is it too much for me to hope that more young people might bootstrap themselves into a home and life by building or renovating a small place of their own, borrowing as little as possible or nothing at all while using hands and hearts and sweat to make a place their own? Can’t a few more $250,000 mortgages be replaced by this kind of old-fashioned gumption and the deep satisfaction it delivers? I hope so.

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The following tips for frugal gardeners are not only quick, safe, and easy, but also involve using items you probably already have in your house.

ASPIRIN: Dissolve 3/4 of an uncoated aspirin tablet in 1 gallon of water. Spray plants every 2-3 weeks with the mixture to prevent fungus problems, including powdery mildew and black spot. It’s also been found to help some plants yield more fruit than using commercial fertilizers.

BAKING SODA: Mix 1 Tbsp of baking soda and a 1/2 tsp liquid soap into 1 gallon of water. Spray this weekly on plants that are prone to powdery mildew. This works as more of a preventative, as it won’t do much after the powdery mildew has taken hold. Make sure to spray the undersides of leaves. Also, apply it in the evening if you can, as it can burn some leaves.

BEER: Put beer (or water with yeast in it) in a shallow container. Sink the container so that the lip is at ground level in the garden. The beer attracts snails and slugs. They'll fall into it and drown.

BORAX: This is a common laundry additive (20 Mule Team is a popular brand), especially for those of us with hard water. But it also works as a nontoxic ant killer. Ants are a huge problem for us as they “farm” aphids and mealy bugs for their honeydew. We have tons of ladybugs but they are useless if the ants are protecting the pests.

CORNMEAL: Corn Gluten Meal can be used as an effective pre-emergent herbicide, but most of us don’t have that just laying around. Cornmeal, however, is an effective soil fungicide. For every 100 square feet, work 2 pounds of cornmeal into the soil. Water well. One application per season is all that is needed.

DRYER SHEETS: If you’re having a picnic or BBQ and are being plagued by yellow jackets, aka meat bees, and mosquitoes, place dryer sheets around the area to deter them.


EGGSHELLS: Save all of your eggshells! Rinse them and then crush them when they are dry. When preparing a planting bed for tomatoes or peppers add the eggshells (approximately the shells from 1 dozen eggs per plant) to the planting hole to avoid blossom end rot.

EPSOM SALTS: Epsom salts contain sulfur and magnesium and are good for using as a foliar fertilizer. Dissolve 2 Tbsp Epsom Salts in 1 gallon of water. Mist plants as a foliar feeding.

MILK: Dilute milk in a 1:1 ratio with water. Spray your tomato and pepper plants weekly to avoid blossom end rot.

RUBBING ALCOHOL: Apply 70 percent isopropyl alcohol to a cotton ball and apply to scale insects. The alcohol desiccates them. Rub them off when they’re dead so you can continue to monitor their levels.

SHAMPOO: Mix 2-1/2 Tbsp Shampoo and 2-1/2 Tbsp cooking oil with 1 gallon of water. Spray insect pests with the mixture to control them. Do not use in full sun, and a few hours after application, rinse the plant off to reduce injury.

If you have other tips on using household items in your garden, please share them!

Rachel’s friends in college used to call her a Renaissance woman. She was always doing something crafty, creative, or utilitarian. She still is. Instead of crafts, her focus these days has been farming as much of her urban quarter-acre as humanly possible. Along with her husband, she runs Dog Island Farm, in the San Francisco Bay Area. They raise chickens, goats, rabbits, dogs, cats, and a kid. They’re always keeping busy. If Rachel isn’t out in the yard, she’s in the kitchen making something from scratch. Homemade always tastes better!


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