Helen and Scott Nearing Answer Homesteading Questions

Helen and Scott Nearing answer homesteading questions, including land buying tips, power tools in the garden and moving large rocks during construction.
By the MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors
May/June 1978
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Helen and Scott Nearing answer reader's homesteading questions. Scott meets a visitor.
Photo by MOTHER EARTH NEWS staff


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Helen and Scott Nearing answer homesteading questions from MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers.

Helen and Scott Nearing Answer Homesteading Questions

As we've noted several times in these pages, Helen and Scott Nearing are light years ahead of most of us when it comes to getting back to the land and living a life of voluntary simplicity. As well they should be, since they originally homesteaded a run-down farm in Vermont's Green Mountains away back in the autumn of 1932.

Life was good for the Nearings on that mini-farm . . . until the slopes around them exploded into ski resorts in the early 50's, forcing Helen and Scott to move onto a rocky- inlet on the coast of  Maine and start all over again.

And that's where you'll find the leavings today: still clearing brush, still building honest stone houses (Helen and Scott are famous for their stone houses), and still raising most of their vegetarian diet themselves in unbelievably- productive wholistic gardens . . . just as they've been doing for nearly 5O Years.

Naturally (in more ways than one/, the Hearings have learned a few things about homesteading and getting back to basics over the years. And, lucky for all of us, they've agreed to share some of that knowledge with if OTHER's readers in a regular question and answer column. If you'd like to get in on the action, send your question or questions about self-sufficient living on the land to Helen and Scott Nearing, MOTHER EARTH NEWS ® P.O. Box 70, Hendersonville, N.C. 28739. And please don't expect personal replies to your queries. The most important and most frequently, asked questions will be answered here — and here only — where we all cart read what the Nearings have to say.

My wife and I expect to buy some land soon and begin subsistence farming on our own, despite our lack of farming experience. Have you any general advice for people about to embark upon such an "adventure"?

Your plunge into a new lifestyle may be too sudden. We would suggest careful preparation before you act:

[1] Don't get into debt. Have enough money set aside before you make the move to live on for at least three years.

[2] Read up carefully and thoroughly on all aspects of organic gardening and farming.

[3] Apprentice yourselves to an experienced farmer, preferably a neighbor. Continue to work for him/her gratis (or nearly so) for as long as you are learning something worthwhile.

[4] If possible, associate with other people who are interested in getting — or who already are — into subsistence farming. Get advice from them.

[5] If you are fortunate enough to find several like-minded couples, join together in the enterprise.

[6] If you don't succeed the first time, try again!

Do you use any power tools (rototiller, etc.) in your farming or gardening? And did you prepare your soil extensively?

The only "power tool" we have ever used is a pickup truck. Our garden was plowed once the first year we came to :Maine, some 25 years ago, and never since. The area where we put our blueberry bushes was never plowed. Instead the land was heavily mulched, well fertilized, and subsequently kept as weedless as possible.

We've heard quite a bit about your affiliation with the Social Science Institute in Harborside. Just what is the purpose and scope of the Institute?

The Social Science Institute is a nonprofit educational organization chartered under the laws of Maine. The Institute is authorized to carry on various kinds of educational work . . . including research and the publishing, printing, and distribution of educational literature. Through the Institute we also arrange lectures, hold classes, and engage in original writing.

Do you use electricity for any purpose (such as refrigeration, heating, etc.) and, if so, from what source(s)?

We didn't have electricity at all in Vermont. It is available in Harborside and we use it chiefly for lighting and to run a freezer and a bathroom heater. Otherwise we heat and cook with wood.

Since you use seaweed as a mulch for your strawberries, could you comment on any drawbacks or advantages in using such mulch on other plants? I've tried hay as a mulch but it's usually cut so late that the seeds it contains make next year's garden look more like a pasture than a vegetable patch!

Seaweed has one great advantage over hay! It contains no weed seeds. It has a second advantage in that it breaks down physically so long as it remains moist. A third favorable characteristic of seaweed is the rather large quantities of nutrients (including trace minerals) which it contains. (It also contains salt, of course . . . but whether or not that is an advantage depends on what plants are being mulched. In our experience, asparagus — whose ancestors were seaside plants — is one of the few garden crops to derive some benefit from the salt.) Finally, when added to compost, seaweed acts as a protein-rich activator.

In what way do you move very large rocks during your stone construction projects?

We use iron bars, chains, planks, and stoneboats. The heaviest boulders — which usually go into the foundations — are moved on a stoneboat that we pull behind our pickup truck.

In handling heavy stones always keep them supported off the ground by sliding the rocks on metal or wood. Never allow a boulder to nose into the earth.

During the actual construction of a wall, we use only those rocks that any two people working on the project can handle.

When building with stone, how does one go about carrying the stonework up into the peak of a building?

Erect a scaffold and pull pails of rock and concrete up with a stout rope and pulley. Lately we've been building with stone only to the second floor plates of a building, which largely does away with the problem. It is best to keep the stone portions of a structure low . . . a story and a half at most. The ideal would be to not lift any concrete or rocks more than five feet.

I'm building a stone house and need to know: After a footer is poured and set, are you able to make provisions for floor joists without later disrupting the slip-forming of the walls where they make a junction with the floor? In other words, is the floor joist laid directly on the sill above the footer . . . or is it beveled and made a part of the wall?

We've done it both ways, depending on the thickness of the wall. If the wall is broad enough we bevel the joist and set it in. The joists are set into an indention of the wall made by a form which is then withdrawn as the wall is erected.

My question concerns window and door frames in stone building construction. I don't understand how the window and door frames fit into the forms. From reading your book it seemed that your forms were designed to be versatile in that different size forms weren't required to fit between the window and door openings. But the section covering the door and window frames explains how they stick out into the rooms a specified amount . . . thus creating a finished trim and window frame all in one operation. What's confusing to me is just how the forms can fit over the recessed frames and how the forms on the outside come in the seven inches to meet the recessed frames. And what keeps the concrete from running out of the forms around the timbers framing these openings?

We vary the position of our door and window frames in different buildings. Some frames are flush with the outside, some with the inside, and some are centered. When your wall has reached the sill level the forms are placed in positions on top of the wall making the necessary joist with the wall.

Set your forms up to the frame and extend them out from there. Thus, they will fit any type frame.

Don't make your concrete too moist! Keep it dry, firm, and sticky . . . about the consistency of a brickmason's mortar, and you'll have little trouble making it stay where you want it.


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