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Homesteading and Livestock
Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

Getting Water When Living Off-Grid

Water — the necessary elixir of life. Without it, we are not able to survive. I can say that my favorite modern convenience is having running hot water to wash with.

Growing up, I don’t remember having running water, except for one year when we rented a “modern” house so we would be allowed to take an elderly friend, Art, out of a nursing home in order for him to live his final few months in peace. I will be writing an article about all the different types of places we lived in (some were tent camping sites, covered wagon — two- then four-wheeled — a 16-by-32 surplus army tent, truck camper, old barn, old school bus, old army bus with wooden roof, and an abandoned house with horses), but most of them were one step up from camping or how the pioneers lived without modern conveniences.

tent 1

I do want to point out that having running water now is wonderful. However, I still utilize the "Living Off-Grid, Really!?" mentality of not wasting it, as I remember the labor involved in acquiring water growing up.

Harvesting Surface Water

I do remember once, in 1989-1990, when we were traveling through the remote desert of Southern Utah — a long stretch of nothing, traveling a slow 20-30 miles a day — over to Grand Junction, Colorado, that we hauled barrels of water for the horses in our cart behind the wagon. It was interesting that the horses seemed to know that we didn’t have much water and just sipped it. We did run out of water as that stretch of road had nothing until we came across a gully/arroyo that had signs of a recent flash flood. We climbed down into the ditch and dug down about two feet to give the horses all they could drink and fill up our barrels.

wagon 2

Because we always had animals (horses, goats, chickens, kids, dogs, and cats) water was one of the first things we would look for whenever we made a stop or went to set up a homestead.

A Hand-Dug Well

In Alabama, our homestead consisted for a few years of a very old primitive, probably previously a slave, house. It had a hand-dug well with a hand-carved windlass that was a thing of wood art. However, the well had caved in or the water table had dropped, so there was no water coming up in the bucket. My dad went down into the well, over 80 feet deep, to have us haul up buckets of rocks, dirt and, finally, mud as he cleaned it out.

I remember this clearly although I was only 6, as it was hard work for all of us, and I had never been so scared for my dad in my life. You could hardly see the dot of light that was his huge lantern down there. The windlass had a very long handle, as my  tiny mother and I slowly, but easily, turned it to haul the bucket of debris up. I remember being told that we couldn’t allow the full bucket to drop as it could hit my dad on his head and kill him. All the work was worth it for that sweet well water that we could haul up for drinking, cleaning, and cooking. I don’t remember using it to water the animals.

swimming hole

Rainwater Harvesting with Sand-Charcoal Filtration

In Tennessee, it was a daily “chore” to ride the horses down the hill to the creek to water them and to go swimming (bathe). In the winter, we collected water off the roof of the barn for them and off the roof of the house for us. At our house, we made a sand/charcoal filter (basically layering charcoal to make it taste better and topping it off with sand to filter out the little leaf debris) to run the water through before storing it.

If you put a screen on top of the bucket charcoal/sand filter and have an open-ended gutter pipe come at it at a 45-degree angle, any big leaves/debris are caught by the screen and then washed/cleaned off by the angled water flow. This is how I do my rainwater barrels to this day.  I remember at least three houses that we lived in that had underground cisterns to store the rainwater. They did require at least an annual patching with cement and food-grade, rubberized paint to keep them from leaking.

Unused Septic Tanks

When I design off-grid places now, we put in large, unused concrete septic tanks cleaned and coated with the rubber paint or large plastic under tanks. The size is very hard to figure out but is determined by how long you think the property will go without rain and how much water the resident uses.

After you have your water, it was necessary for us to make sure we didn’t waste it. Dish-washing water was then used to water our garden. Except for drinking water, we never used water only once. Even drinking water as a tea or “soup” sometimes after it had already been used to cook something. For example, whenever my mother would make goat cheese and the cheese and the whey would separate, she would then cook something in it, thus not wasting both the liquid and the energy it took to heat it.

There were periods where we had so much whey that we got sick of everything being cooked in it, as it can taste sourish in large quantities. We had a running joke whenever it was time to eat: No whey. And mom would say, “My kitchen has two choices on the menu, take it or leave it.” I actually got her a shirt that showed a mean-looking goat on it that said, "NO Whey!"

PV Panels with DC Pumps

At one house, we had a hand-operated ringer washer, which a couple of us kids got our hands stuck in when we were ringing out the clothes. It was a game for us kids, as one kid would feed the clothes through the ringer while another would hand-turn the crank. Later, as our family grew, we would just do laundry in the large machines at a laundromat on our monthly town runs.

Having hot water meant heating it on the stove, which was easy in the winter as we always had a large pot of water on the wood stove for moisture in the air (wood burning drys it out) and for hot water. In the summer, we didn’t use as much hot water (we did have one of those plastic bag camping solar “showers” that we heated water in). Later, I did end up building a solar batch heater using a plastic tank painted black and mounted on the roof. The problem is, we had no pump so we had to haul the water from the creek up onto the roof to fill the tank and then it was gravity fed. It usually got way too hot. Now, a small solar-electric PV panel and a little DC pump can do it wonderfully.

I look forward to your questions on how to have running hot water off-grid using a solar thermal collectors and solar electric (PV), as this is how people living off the grid do it now. I look forward every day to the interactions I have on my Living Off Grid, Really!?!? Facebook page and hope you will join the discussion there.

Stay energized, Aur

Aur Beck has lived completely off-grid for more than35 years. He has traveled with his family through 24 states and 14,000 recorded miles by horse-drawn wagon. Aur is a presenter at The Climate Reality Project, a fellow addict at Oil Addicts Anonymous International  and a talk show co-host at WDBX Community Radio for Southern Illinois 91.1 FM. Find him on the Living Off Grid, Really!?!? Facebook page, and read all of Aur's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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

Keeping Chickens Warm the Off-Grid Way


On our off-grid homestead in the mountains of Idaho, we have been raising chickens for many years now. Being off-grid has afforded us a opportunity to be creative and adaptable with many of our daily matters, including how we keep our chickens warm and healthy during the winter.

Because we don’t have the benefit of limitless electricity, reaching for the conventional on-grid fixes, such as a heating lamp or a electric water dish heater, just isn't a option. Thus, we have adapted how we keep the flock warm and healthy by first looking at free resources already available around the homestead. We also love using things that are natural, organic and biodegradable!

After implementing and refining our off-grid tricks over many winters, we can't believe how easy and simple they are, so we had to share them with our readers. The awesome thing is these tips can be used for your flock right away. In addition, it will help create a greener homestead with a lower carbon footprint.

Woodstove Magic: Using Rocks

We have wood heat. The wood stove for us during the winter is going 24/7. This works out great for the chickens because we keep rocks on the wood stove. The rocks heat up, retain heat (thermal mass) and are used in a couple different applications.

First, we put the rocks in the water dish. This prevents the chicken’s water from freezing. No more buying the electric water dish heaters!

We also will take our heated flatter rocks and place them on the floor of the coop during the night. Throughout the night it radiates and gives them  just a little extra warmth

I will also  use the flatter heated rock during the morning when I feed the flock. I will actually put the warm oatmeal or potatoes I cook them and scoop it onto the rock. This way the food wont freeze which happens when you dump it on the frozen ground.

The Beauty of Straw

Straw is a great insulator. When the temps drop we do a couple things. We stack straw bales up against the bottom of the coop. The chickens then have a insulated spot away from the wind and cold.

We also will use straw in their coop. I layer it on the floor and build up their empty egg-laying boxes with it. The thick floor layer really does help with warming up their coop and even helps as a sound barrier for those early morning roosters who want to get you out of bed at 4am!

I also take the straw and use it outside where I feed them. I create a small area using a baby crib railing, which I cover with leaves. Underneath, I pile up the straw. When I feed the chickens, the food doesn’t freeze, plus they are protected.

When spring comes, all that beautiful straw then goes right into our compost pile for later use in the back-to-Eden garden


Insulate Your Coop

Yes, it pays to add insulation to your coop. With one roll of insulation, I was able to do the walls in my coop. Purchase faced insulation, as you do not want to expose your chickens to the fiberglass. If you use Styrofoam, realize the chickens will peck it to death! So, it must be covered so as not to tempt them.

Also, make sure there is still some ventilation in the coop. A sealed coop is a no-no. Don't forget the rug! We use old rugs — I have many old rugs which, during the cold snap, I nailed up on the sides of the coop. Every little bit helps, so don't throw those old ratty rugs away. Your animals will be thanking you.

Close the Door

Something so simple as keeping the coop door shut during the night will help immensely when temperatures dip at night. Imagine when your door opens to your house and everyone is screaming to CLOSE THE DOOR! Every night, we make the cold trudge to the coop to shut the door — simple, easy, and safe.

Warm Food

Are my hens spoiled? Maybe. But warm treats during the winter go a long way. I will make warm oatmeal, rice, potatoes, and even add some coconut oil to the mix. Why? When its cold, animals burn more calories. Every now and then, I will also add a little bit of Gatorade to their water.

Just remember, chickens are a hardy bunch. They are bred  to tolerate winter conditions so don’t fret into thinking they will die when its below zero. They won't. But all of these handy tips will keep them much more healthy and, of course, cozy warm.

Starry Hilder and her husband, Mark, live off-grid on a 13-acre self-sustaining homestead in the stunning mountains of Northern Idaho. Unique in their approach to homesteading, they rely on working with nature and utilizing their skills and knowledge with a back-to-basic outlook. From hunting and fishing, to gardening, composting, canning, and trail running, paddling, and hiking, there is never a dull moment on their property. Starry enjoys sharing her journey and all their life skills on their YouTube channel. Read all of Starrys' MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here

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

The ABCs of Homesteading: K is for 'Kitchen Skills'

Header Photo

This is the ninth post in the ABCs of Homesteading series. Click here to read the rest of the series.

Famous chefs Alain Ducasse and Alice Waters have very different styles. But they both have a foundational philosophy of using impeccable ingredients and simple flavors to make miraculous meals. You can come close to their kind of magic, at home, if you grow your own food or buy from local farmers focused on flavor and nutrition.

Beyond great ingredients, thinking outside the box (literally) and simplifying common recipes makes daily deliciousness doable. Place an emphasis on the “whole” in wholesome by using ingredients like whole chickens, whole grains, whole vegetables including tops and peels. And when using anything that has been packaged make sure it only includes ingredients you recognize and would otherwise use at home.

If you've been habituated to commercially processed food, going simple may require a taste bud reset. A couple weeks of good wholesome eating should do it. Here are some ideas to get you started.

Active Ingredients. Baking recipes often call for baking powder as a leavening agent. That ubiquitous white stuff may harbor secret ingredients like aluminum and cornstarch. You can make a replacement using 1 part baking soda and ½ part cream of tartar (the white residue of tartaric acid from wine-making). Or, you can be a total rebel and change any recipe that calls for baking powder to ½ teaspoon of baking soda per 1 cup flour. This works great for recipes that contain sugar. But, it can occasionally go wrong in savory baking. For savory recipes, sub in a tablespoon of vinegar for part of your liquid content to activate the baking soda, and mix very well.

Batter. Batter is all about consistency and ratios. You can use one base recipe and adapt as needed. Here's mine:

• 2 cups of flour
• 2 teaspoons sugar
• 2 eggs
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• ½ teaspoon salt

For pancakes, add just enough milk so that your batter spreads slowly across a hot pan without ever reaching the edges.

For crepes, add more milk for a thinner liquid batter. Blinis are the Russian name for crepes, but you can kick them up a notch by subbing in ½ cup buckwheat and a dollop of sour cream.

Beer batter uses a 50/50 mix of beer and milk in the amounts necessary to make the batter just creamy enough to stick to your veggies.

Use this base for pasta dough too. Switch to semolina flour and drop the baking soda, then sub in a 50/50 mix of olive oil and water until your dough is the right consistency for pasta. Pasta dough must rest an hour before being rolled out, but other batters are ready to go after blending.

If you have an abundance of summer veggies, shred them up and mix them in your batter base at a ratio of one cup veggies to one cup flour. Add liquid after you add veggies so you you can adjust to account for the moisture in your garden goods. Pan fry and serve with mustard or spicy mayonnaise and a side salad as a satisfying meal.

Cutting a carcass. Many small farmers sell whole broiler chickens rather than pre-cut pieces. But cooking a whole chicken is pretty much like cooking a whole cow. You wouldn't slow roast a filet mignon with a rump roast would you? Breasts, thighs, wings, and carcasses all deserve special treatment. So, it's good to know how to carve a whole bird. Here's a video to get you started. Then, treat breasts like good steak, marinate, pan sear, and finish in the oven. Thighs and wings benefit from slow-cooking. And carcasses are perfect for bone stock or for use in chicken n' dumplins.

De-boning fish. Similar to cutting a carcass, this is a good skill every homesteader to have. Fish bones are great for fish stocks for making bouillabaisse or in compost tea. Whole fish also costs less pound for pound. Here's a video to get you started.

Electric Appliances have their place in the homestead kitchen. It's good to do things by hand, but sometimes you just need to get stuff done. A food processor and heavy-duty mixer can help. By running your sauces and soups through a food processor after cooking you can skip steps like skinning and seeding and reduce loss and time. With the aid of a mixer, you can make doughs and batters in minutes.

Flour Tortillas are easy to make. Mix 2 cups flour, 2 tablespoons lard, and enough water to make the dough adhere. Form a ping pong sized ball of dough and roll that out on a well-floured surface into a roundish shape of the same thickness as store bought tortillas. Heat your dry, cast iron pan and fry the tortillas. When air bubbles form in the dough, flip it over. Take it off about thirty seconds later. Repeat until you finish your dough. (Use your vent fan. Dry flour on a hot pan smokes like crazy)

Garlic is easy to peel using a broad flat knife. Lay the garlic head on its side squash it with flat side of the knife. Then put the now loose cloves curved side down on your counter and squash them with the flat side of the knife. The skin should slip right off. To mince, rock your knife like a cradle, back and forth, over the clove. Change knife angle and repeat.

Herbs make the difference between good and great food. Add fresh French tarragon to chicken and pork. Use thyme and rosemary with beef and lamb. Use savory for eggs, or anything savory for that matter. Chives are great in soups. Tie your favorite cut herbs together with twine in a “bouquet garnis” and toss them in stew or slow cooker meals. Remove the whole bouquet before serving. Oregano, dill seed, and coriander are better dried, but use the rest fresh if possible. Save basil by freezing it oil in ice cube trays.

Pan Sear for Slow Cooking

Iron, as in a cast iron pan, should sit on your stove at the ready, for whatever you have to throw in it. To keep it well-seasoned, leave it dirty until you need to use it again, that way if you have to rinse with water, you can immediately re-season by adding lard and heating the pan to start your next meal.

Jacques Pepin. Or, Julia Child. Or better yet, both together. If you want to become a master in the kitchen, watch as many of their cooking shows as you can and practice their techniques frequently.

Knife Sharpening makes cutting up in the kitchen so much easier. Get a fool-proof sharpener for under $10.

Knife Sharpening

Press back of the knife into the counter with the blade facing up. Then run the sharpener over the knife. The knife never moves, so nobody gets cut.

Lard is the best cooking fat. Period.

Mushrooms should not be washed. Get a mushroom brush for dusting them off. And start them in a dry pan, to release juices and get them crisp, before you add butter. (Thanks to Jenna, at Gnomestead Hollow, for being my mushroom guru).

Naan is another easy homestead bread. Put a teaspoon of dry-active yeast and sugar in 3/4 cup of warm water and stir. Give that about ten minutes to bubble and froth. Ready two cups flour, two heaping tablespoons yogurt, two tablespoons oil or lard, and two teaspoons sugar in a bowl. Add the yeast water to the other ingredients and gently incorporate. Stop when sticky and set aside for at least thirty minutes. Then flour up your rolling surface and hands, make golf ball-sized balls, and roll them out to ½ inch thick amoeba-shapes. Cook like flour tortillas.

Okra must be picked small (2-3 inches) and cooked within two days of harvesting. Chop it into into 1 inch pieces and toss in a hot pan for five minutes with chopped onions, tomatoes, salt, and pepper for a flavorful summer side.

Pie crust. You can use the same recipe for quiche, apple, rhubarb, pumpkin, mushroom, and pot pie, as well as empanadas and tarts.

I adapted my recipe from this Mother Earth News post as follows:

• 2 cups flour
• 1 ½ sticks butter
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1/4 cup water with two ice cubes

After cutting the butter into pea-sized pieces, throw everything into the mixer on low. When the dough just starts to cohere, stop the mixer and form the rest of the dough into a ball by hand. The ice cubes remain behind in the mixer and I roll out the dough quickly on a well-floured cutting board. You can skip chilling since the ice water makes the dough stiff enough to work immediately. Fill with whatever and bake at 350º F until it looks and feels done.

Quinoa is so in demand that the price has skyrocketed. But with a 20-minute cook time and the power punch of meat, it's still worthwhile to keep some in your pantry. Toss it with your favorite veggies or dress it up as mac and cheese. Try doing the same with other grains like farro, barley, millet, and whole wheat kernels. Use these as an arborio substitute for a surprising risotto-style meal. Wash these grains well to remove unsavory saponins.

Rabbit is a sustainable meat source for many homesteaders. Though it may look like a red meat, it's super lean and should be treated like chicken thighs. Try substituting rabbit for chicken in a simple coq au vin recipe. And viola you've got Lapin au Vin.

Slow-cooking can be done in an electric slow cooker or by using your oven set to 200 º F. Cover food with liquid and keep a lid on at all times to maintain moisture. Sear your meats and vegetables in your cast iron pan with a spoon of lard to caramelize and seal in flavor before slow-cooking.

To peel or not to peel? Not. Almost always. Even butternut squash rinds are delicious and edible when cooked. And when used in soups and run through a food processor, you don't even know they are there.

Un-aged meat needs to be marinated or allowed to “age” in your refrigerator before cooking. I've heard people say that heritage meats aren't tender. This has not nothing to do with meat quality and everything to do with processing. Small processors have to keep costs down to be competitive so they can't pay for uprades like aging a carcass before butchering. To compensate at home, remove meats from your freezer and allow to rest in your fridge for a few days before cooking.

Vinegar isn't just for salad dressing. Add a few tablespoons to your bone stock to draw out more nutrients. Use it to “flash marinate” meats for last minute meals. Add to soups for zest. Put two tablespoons in a glass of water with honey as a refreshing elixir.

Countertop Flour Mill

Whole grains are literally grains that have not been ground or otherwise processed. When wheat is ground it begins losing nutritional value. You can buy whole kernels of wheat and run it through a hand mill or coffee grinder in minutes. It's an extra step, but grinding your own grains improves taste and quality and eliminates the risk of unwanted additives or processing.

X-factor. That je ne sais quoi that makes a simple meal profound is all about your state of mind while preparing it. Treat cooking like a respite from the rest of your day. Immerse yourself. Smell, savor, sip wine, and take pleasure in doing it. You'll be amazed at the results.

Yellow split peas make great soup. Put a pound in a pot with these:

• 2 chopped onions
• 2 Tablespoons curry powder
• 2 quarts bone stock
• 4 quarts water

Simmer until the peas smoosh when stirred. Run through your food processor to smooth, put back in the pan, stir in enough milk or whey to get to your desired consistency, and salt and pepper to taste. Serve with a grilled cheese or a hunk of sourdough bread. Eat leftovers for days.

Zucchini makes great tahini. Chop it and stew it with several heaping tablespoons of home-toasted sesame seeds, tons of garlic, and salt and pepper to taste. Run it through the food processor, drain out extra liquid (if necessary), and serve with naan.

Next up in our ABCs of Homesteading series: L is for "Legal Stuff". Stay tuned! Find all parts of the series here.

Tasha Greer spent several years “practicing” homesteading in a suburban home in Maryland before moving to a nearly 10-acre rural paradise in North Carolina. She currently raises goats, poultry, pigs, herbs, worms, and maintains an extensive edible landscape at the reLuxe Ranch. She is a master gardener volunteer with a focus on helping people grow their own food. Tasha also is also a contributing author for The Grow Network. Find Tasha at The Way Back , reLuxe Renderings, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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

Rethinking Our Free-Range Policy


Our chickens in their coop.

We’ve always been big enthusiasts of free-ranging our backyard flock and, in fact, have practiced this for the larger part of our career as chicken owners. Recently, however, we had to rethink our strategy a bit due to the appearance of a particularly sneaky fox that started to make its way on our property at the most unexpected hours. Up until now, we were used to foxes roaming either at night or very early in the morning, which makes it possible to ensure the chickens’ safety by locking them in the coop at sunset and releasing them around mid-morning. When a fox comes hunting anytime — at 10am, 3pm, or midnight — it’s impossible to rely on a safe time.

From our experience, a predator’s attacks usually don’t last forever – a fox or a bird of prey will choose our yard as their hunting-spot for a while and, if dissuaded by repeated failure to carry off a chicken, eventually will move to more favorable places. Therefore, we made the decision to lock up our chickens for the time being (unless we can personally supervise them while they are pecking around in the last half-hour or so before sunset), until this particular fox loses heart and goes elsewhere.

There are many big benefits to free-ranging: saving on chicken feed, natural pest control, a cleaner coop (less time in the coop = less poop in the coop), soil improvement by way of chickens digging for worms and insects and dropping their manure around. Are there benefits to not free-ranging, though? During the past few weeks, when our chickens have been mostly locked up, we’ve had the opportunity to look at this from a different angle:

Our garden is safe. We do put up fences, protective nets, etc, but in general, it’s an ongoing battle between us and our birds — we exercise all our ingenuity in order to protect our vegetables, while they will spare no effort to get in the garden beds and either eat our precious crops or simply turn the carefully made beds into dust-bath craters. No chickens in the garden means no problem.

No Egg Quests are needed. Periodically, one of our hens will decide that the nesting boxes just aren’t good enough and that she’d do much better to lay in the bushes, or in an old bucket, or underneath the storage shed, etc., and then we have to play detective looking for the nest. When the hens are in the coop, they lay in the coop.

No poop on the front porch. Yes, I know, fencing off the entrance area would solve this problem, but in the meantime, while our chickens are locked in, they are prevented from using the Welcome mat as their poop depository.

Still, for me nothing can beat the fun of watching the antics of our colorful little flock as it roams around the yard — and, therefore, I believe free-ranging will remain our preferred modus operandi of backyard chicken management.

Anna Twittos academic background in nutrition made her care deeply about real food and seek ways to obtain it. Anna and her husband live on a plot of land in Israel. They aim to grow and raise a significant part of their food by maintaining a vegetable garden, keeping a flock of backyard chickens and foraging. Anna's books are on her Author Page. Connect with Anna on Facebook and read more about her current projects on her blog. Read all Anna's Mother Earth News posts here

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

Fruit Tree Pruning Basics

Many people feel that fruit tree pruning is too complex a task to be done by amateurs, but when we amateurs learn a few basic concepts, we can keep our fruit trees healthy, well-shaped and bearing excellent fruit. It’s simple: Learn the two basic pruning cuts, get equipped with good tools and keep in mind your long-term goals when pruning.

Purposes for Fruit Tree Pruning

Fruit trees grow whether we prune them or not, but a properly pruned fruit tree has a much better chance of avoiding diseases and giving bountiful and beautiful fruit. Pruning keeps fruit trees healthy by removing diseased limbs, crowded branches or branches that grow with narrow angles.

Pruning also maximizes the quality of fruit by controlling the number of fruit buds. This allows each fruit to reach maximum size without their weight breaking branches. Pruning dense outer branches allows fruit buds to avoid fungal diseases by providing them plenty of sunlight and breeze.

Finally, pruning is critical to maintain the size and shape fruit trees you want. A tree’s rootstalk largely determines each fruit tree’s potential size — whether it is a dwarf, semi-dwarf or standard tree. However, annual pruning is also crucial in determining a fruit tree’s ultimate size as well as its shape.

Basic Tree Shapes

The two basic shapes for fruit trees are either the central-leader or the open-center, also called a “vase-shaped” tree. The central-leader tree will create a smaller tree with less fruit, but easily allows sunlight to all branches. The open-center shape allows a tree to grow larger, but the upper canopy must be kept pruned to allow sunlight and air to reach the center.


It’s best to envision the basic shape you want for your fruit tree the year you plant it because you’ll begin then with gentle pruning. When choosing between a central-leader and vase-shape, consider not only how much elbow room your tree will have when mature, but the type and character of your tree. For example, pear trees naturally assume a central-leader shape but peach trees seem to insist on an open center. One apple tree may easily form a central-leader, while another seems destined to be vase-shaped. Your pruning ultimately determine a tree’s shape, but your work is easier when you allow a tree to express its individuality.

Tools for Fruit Tree Pruning

Good pruning tools are important to avoid damaging your fruit trees or frustrating yourself. Basic hand-shears are necessary for the youngest trees. As fruit trees grow in size, you’ll want to add pruning loppers and a pruning hand saw.

The best pruning tools are made by Felco. It’s not a surprise that they are made in Switzerland where quality knives are also made. Good hardware stores carry Felco bypass pruners and Felco loppers. They can also be found at This online site is helpful in explaining what pruners will best fit your hand. Felco’s sharpening tool is also necessary to keep your tools working well.

When to Prune Fruit Trees

Fruit tree pruning takes place during the winter and very early spring, when fruit trees are dormant. For growing Zone 6 and above, late winter is the best time to begin pruning. Start your pruning with apple trees so you can delay pruning the more cold-sensitive trees, like peaches, until late March or into April. Pruning should be completed before fruit buds show their first pink.

The exceptions to this completion date are the unwanted growths of watersprouts and suckers. Watersprouts are often caused by stress and are recognized by growing vertically off their parent-branch. Suckers grow up at the base of the tree from below the graft line. Both deplete fruit tree’s resources and should be pruned off when they appear.

Basic Cuts of Fruit Tree Pruning: The Thinning Cut and Heading Cut

Thinning cuts remove entire branches or limbs. This cut is made just beyond the “collar,” or circular bark, at the base of the branch you’re removing. A tree heals over this cut area if the collar is not injured and if a stub is not left extending beyond the collar. This thinning cut is used to remove branches that are crowded, diseased or weak.

When branches are still small, the thinning cut is also used to remove any that have narrow-angles. Maintaining branches at 10 and 12 o’clock angles will give them the best strength. Finally, use the thinning cut to eliminate any branches that grow towards the center of the tree.


Heading cuts are made just after a bud and are used to change the direction a limb is growing or to shorten it. It is also used to stimulate the buds just before the heading cut so they will grow out into branches the following year. Make your heading cut at a 45-degree angle and about ¼-inch beyond an outward-facing bud.

How Much to Prune Annually

A good rule is to not prune more than 1/3 of any tree annually so you don’t damage its long-term health. When pruning an older neglected tree, it may therefore take three to five years to get it to the shape and size you want. Some trees, like peaches, are such vigorous growers that they require a fourth of their growth to be removed each spring. Young trees should be only gently pruned, but removing unwanted growth when it is still small benefits fruit trees in the long-term.

Fruit trees do survive our mistakes as we learn to prune, so feel confident in pruning with these few basic concepts as your guide. You’ll not only have healthy fruit trees and fruit, but will gradually become a confident and competent fruit tree pruner.

Mary Lou Shaw, a retired physician who emphasized preventive medicine, is now homesteading with her husband in Ohio. Besides growing their own food, the pair help preserve genetics and knowledge needed by others to foster rare breeds. They have a large garden and orchard, Dorking chickens, Narragansett turkeys, Dutch Belted cows and bees. Buy Mary Lou's book, Growing Local Food, through Carlisle Press at 800-852-4482. Read all of Mary Lou's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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Meet Fritz, a Rare Appenzeller-Spitzhauben Breed Rooster


So much on a farm we are exposed to negative activity. In fact, that’s everywhere we go. Our small farm is no exception. Here we have 15 chickens with 14 hens and one rooster. Our rooster fancies himself a very special individual with his funky tuft of feathers instead of a cone and his beautiful black, white, and blue feathering. He is a rare Appenzeller Spitzhauben, the national bird of Switzerland. We have named him Fritz for his background.

The Appenzeller Sptizhauben Chicken Breed

The Appenzeller Spitzhauben has been called “friendly and engaging.” They are truly beautiful birds and are excellent free rangers. It is famed for its forward-facing crest and feathered cone, rather than the traditional cone.

The Spitzhauben is very well adapted to cold temperatures being native to the Alps. They are excellent climbers and can fly at low levels, making them difficult to catch for predators. The breed was established in the 1400s and has been known to stay in trees in the winter in its native Switzerland.

Where to Find the Appenzeller Sptizhauben

The Spitzhauben has been known to be a bit nervous, but will settle down with some handling.  Our supplier for the breed here in Missouri is Cackle Hatchery. Located near Springfield, Missouri, Cackle Hatchery has been in business 80 years and ships all over the United States.

We obtained Fritz and two other Appenzeller Spitzhauben roosters in a purchase of 16 chicks. As new farmers, we had no real idea of what would happen. My personal career background involved years in classroom instruction, both in education and on the corporate level. I was used to disciplining students and thought I would try this on my roosters.

Raising Appenzeller Sptizhauben Chickens

There was Elvis, with his black tuft reminding us of the young Elvis Presley, and the Sarge. Soon, the roosters began fighting one another. Some had told us to isolate the aggressive roosters until they calmed down. One after another, they spent time in one of the rabbit cages we had.

One after another, the roosters stayed in isolation about a week apiece. Regrettably, two of them were killed by the eventual victor, Fritz. Fritz was now the undisputed king of Hemme Farms. Yet, despite our efforts at conventional taming methods, his aggression didn’t stop. We just fed the chickens and gathered the eggs.

Fritz’s Aggressive Tendency

Last May, our grandson came to visit. One day while free ranging, Fritz decided he was too big for his britches and began to chase. He chased our grandson, attempting to spur him. The chase led to our front porch where I subdued the aggressor. I took him back to the coop, uncertain as to what to do.  The next day, “Chicken Patrol” was born.

My wife had bought a water pistol for our grandson to play with. I told him that  he needed to get the rooster back for his aggressive behavior. Colin filled his water gun and was ready for action. Along with his grandma, the hunt began. Soon, I heard a loud crowing and a loud snickering laugh. The rooster began running for his life and soon was back in the coop. From behind the ramp to the roost, he let out his loudest crow, as if to say you can’t stop me!

Colin was more determined to get him. Whoosh, another blast hit Fritz. The grandparents laughed so hard they cried. A week later, the rooster hurt his foot and now limps. Yet, despite his disability, he has become a comedian. He is the king of drama and constantly crows like a kid wanting attention when company comes over.

We keep the water pistol near the pen. When we hear an obnoxious crowing, out comes the water! Fritz may fly up to 3 feet in the air when squirted. “Stop, duck and roll!” Needless to say, his behavior has improved drastically but the laughs have been endless.

Tom Hemme and his wife work to raise crops and animals on Hemme Farm in Missouri. Born and raised in Nashville, Tenn., Tom taught agricultural history and Native American heritage for many years. Follow Tom on his website,

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Wood Heat and Chickens: Two Steps Toward Self-Sufficiency

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about starting a journey to become self-sufficient, having the perfect plan, and getting to write about it. I also wrote about how things didn’t go according to my perfect plan and how I was ready to start again even though winter was starting and I didn’t have much to write about.


So, here we are in the midst of a new year trying to make some positive steps towards self-sufficiency. One of the small, but still forward, steps we’ve taken this winter also happens to be one of my favorites: burning wood in the fireplace! There are so many reasons why I absolutely love to burn wood. First, in my opinion, there is no better heat than that produced by wood. Second, it cuts down on our dependency on propane, natural gas, kerosene, or whatever heating fuel you use.

The Virtues of Wood Heat

You see, even though other heating fuels are cheaper now than they usually are this time of year, it’s still more expensive than wood in many places, plus I must rely on somebody else to get those other fuels from their origins to me. For wood, I can just go out and cut it and get it home by myself. It has been said and is very true that wood heats you up three different times — once when you cut it and bring it home, once when you split and stack it, and then again when you burn it. Now I call that efficiency!

Third, I love the aroma from the smoke drifting out of the chimney. Finally, it helps create one of the best atmospheres known to man. Whether it’s a campfire or in your fireplace with the lights off and you’re just relaxing with your family, there is nothing that beats watching a crackling fire.

One of our self-sufficiency goals is to grow and raise as much of our own food and make as many of our own products as possible. We absolutely hate going to the grocery store and don’t want to do it any more than we absolutely must. There are many reasons that we dislike grocery shopping, but here are some of the main ones: One, you have no idea where that food actually came from and/or what was done to it while it was being grown and in transport. Two, I hate paying the high prices; and three, the stores are way too crowded for me! My garden did OK last summer but not well enough to preserve any food, so we’re still going to have to visit the grocery store on a much-too-often basis.

Advantages of Raising Chickens: More Than the Best Eggs

One thing we don’t have to worry about, however, is eggs. We’ve been raising chickens for several years now, and once I tasted an egg from a chicken that I raised, I knew that it would be a terrible day if I ever had to eat a factory-farmed, store-bought egg again!

I mean, what would you rather eat — an egg with a dark, golden-yellow yolk from a chicken that you know for sure got to run around the yard getting exercise and eating fresh green grass and bugs like a chicken is supposed to, or an egg with a pale, basically colorless yolk from a chicken that is kept in a cage with other chickens with no room to move around in at all?

To me there is no comparison which one will taste better and is healthier for my family and I to eat. I know that if something happens and I can’t raise chickens anymore, I will go to someone that does and get eggs from them before I eat a store-bought egg again.

There are also other advantages to raising chickens than eggs alone. Although I haven’t butchered any of mine yet, I am sure that just like the eggs, the meat from one of your own chickens is a lot better-tasting and healthier than a store-bought chicken. Raising chickens also gives you your own pest control, as they are constantly on the lookout for bugs, their manure is loaded with nitrogen to use in your compost, they provide weed control, and along with eating their eggs, you can sell them and make a few bucks!

So, as you can see, these are two small steps but in the right direction. As long as you’re going in the right direction, learning from and correcting your mistakes, and making progress, you will never be a failure.

What steps will we take and talk about in our next blog post? I’m not sure yet, but I have a few ideas. Be sure to keep an eye out and watch for our next blog to find out. Until then, Happy Homesteading!

Jeremy Obermeyer owns and operates Obermeyer Heritage Farms with his family in Gypsum, Kansas. Obermeyer Heritage Farms is an all-natural farming and gardening operation using organic techniques to grow only heirloom vegetables and raise only heritage breeds of livestock. Connect with Jeremy on Facebook, and read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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