Homesteading Tips: Gardening Mistakes and House Building Advice

One homesteader reports his family's trials as they battled garden slugs, tried to plant an orchard and built their home by hand.
By Dennis, Polly & Aaron Joos
March/April 1974
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Mulching with a  mix of manure and wood shavings attracted more slugs than these gardeners could deal with.

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Knowing how not to do something wrong is as valuable as knowing how to do it right. Books should be written on mistakes: Perhaps then they'd be repeated less often. That's why we'd like to share a goof or two with your readers.

One of several wrong moves we made last summer was to mulch our tomato patch with a horse-manure wood shaving mixture. The local slugs discovered that (to them) delicacy and flocked to the feast. For months they enjoyed the ground covering - but miraculously avoided the crop - and I congratulated myself that feeding the critters had made them polite enough, in return, to leave the plants alone . . . like bribing woodchucks away from your garden with a field of clover.

Then the fruit began to ripen, and my complacency changed about the same time as the tomatoes. As they turned red, the slugs attacked. (It's possible that if I'd supplied them with more mulch, the pests would have been appeased. I'll let you know next year. Some folks never learn!) Incidentally, the only way I've found to get rid of slugs is to beat them to death. The old cup-of-beer trick is fine if you like those oozy creatures as drinking buddies . . . and if you have enough brew to replace the bait every few days when it goes stale. Personally, I prefer not to share my booze.

Another blunder came from my ignorance of rabbit habits. We fenced our gardens from the beasts, but forgot about them when we planted our apple trees . . . and they chewed the bark off five. That sets our orchard hopes back a year. To prevent such a happening, wrap the trunks or shut the critters out somehow.

Another thing we did last summer - after the gardens were mulched - was build a stone house. It's not perfectly square, the floor is too near the ground and the roof leaks. A total disaster? No, those are minor problems. Our real folly was the purchase of $300 worth of barn boards and beams. For someone else, old barn lumber could be a fine building material . . . that is, if it's inexpensive and nearby, and if there are several strong backs handy. We failed in all categories. The wood was not cheap (we didn't drive a very hard bargain). It wasn't down the road but 80 miles from our building site, so that transportation costs added another $200 to our bill. Labor was a problem, too: Polly was pregnant, I am no great brute of a man and Furburger the dog came along just for the ride. We were fortunate to have some help some of the time, but the job still proved a back breaker and we spent four sweaty, exhausting, blackfly-infested days getting it done.

Then, in the end, we couldn't use the beams for rafters because I can't lift a 16 foot 10-by-10 16 feet into the air by myself. In his book, The Wilderness Cabin, Calvin Rutstrum suggests cutting logs lengthwise with a chain saw . . . and I tried this with the idea that it might make my timbers easier to handle. Calvin, however, never recommended slicing used wood ...probably because he knew about the nails that lurk inside to ambush the saw's cutting edge as it churns its way through. After a week of obscenities, sore arms and dulled chain we bought new 6-by-6 hemlock rafters.

Despite these boners, we accomplished our goals for the summer (you can see from the picture that we did some things right). Now that it's winter, life is a bit different: We don't work so hard, or make so many mistakes.

Dennis, Polly & Aaron Joos (and Furburger)-Colebrook, N.H. 

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