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


Fabric Patterns and Homemade Clothes: A Tribute to a Mother’s Love

A Tribute to Mother
This story is from Mary Conley and was submitted as part of our Wisdom From Our Elders collection of self-sufficient tales from yesteryear.

Mom was a hard-working farm woman and would put us present women, who sit in front of our computers, to shame. Like everyone, she had her share of faults, but hard work and know-how weren't among them. After giving birth to five boys, she had me at age 40, and never expected to live to raise me. She was almost 97 years old when she died, so I guess a little hard work doesn't hurt anybody. I found the following paragraphs in my files. I submitted them a few years ago to a Reader's Digest advertisement about cotton fabric. Unfortunately, the ad discontinued the following month or they would have chosen my submissions for sure, right?!  We have a small farm, now, and I often wish I could tell Mom about it.

The Drawer: Fabric Storage

My mother made my clothing from layette to wedding gown by using a few patterns and a lot of creativity. She always had a dresser drawer full of fabric that she had purchased whenever there was some spare cash. As a child, I loved to take out all the cotton fabric and study the colors and patterns as if each selection were a piece of art. Then I became a teenager, and the drawer took on new meaning. Many a time, I would come home and tell Mom of a special occasion and the need for a new dress. We would go to the drawer, choose a fabric and discuss a style. There were a few times when I didn’t give her much notice. Then, the deal was made. She would list all the jobs that I must do so she would have time to sew. I did those jobs, but I also remember listening to the rhythm of her sewing machine long after I went to bed. Mom had sacrificed sleep for me. I realize now that it was much more than the contents of the drawer that was the fabric of my life.

Fabric Patterns Puzzle

I cannot think of fabric without also thinking about my mother who lived to almost 97 years of age. I especially value a story she often told me, because it is typical for her generation of creative, hardworking women. Mom had a husband and five sons before I, her only daughter, was born. During the depression, she would buy a large piece of blue cotton fabric and cut all six of her men's shirts from it. She would lay out the pattern pieces for the big shirts first, and then arrange and rearrange the little pieces for the smaller boys until all the pattern pieces fit with hardly any material left over. Of course, any remaining fabric would be used for a quilt block. Mom and the shirts are gone, but I still have many of her quilts--treasured reassurances that my memories are real.

Photo by Mary Conley 


 Please send email submissions to Letters@MotherEarthNews.com with the subject line "Elder Wisdom" or send mail to: attn: Heidi Hunt, Re: Elder Wisdom, Mother Earth News, 1503 SW 42nd St., Topeka, KS 66609. 

 

Sewing and Quilting the Old Way with Rags

 

My mother never visited a fabric store until she was in her sixties, yet she sewed clothes for my sister and me, made beautiful quilts and decorated our humble home with delightful handmade curtains, tablecloths and couch covers for years. One of my favorite dresses as a youngster was an outrageously bright jumper she made from an old housecoat.

My mother carefully saved each button, zipper and scrap of eyelet trim for other projects. I’d watch as she ripped apart old clothes to remake into something for us, and I’d think how when I grew up, I’d buy brand new fabric from a real store for sewing.

With five sisters who still like to exchange outgrown clothing with each other, my mother filled the hall closet with hand-me-down “glad rags” from my aunts and cousins. Even in the 1960s, this was an outdated practice. Today, it is almost unheard of while stores overflow with cheap clothing and textiles. Thrift stores receive so much donated clothing that they often give it away, as do churches and schools.

In the 1700s and earlier, clothing was among the most costly items for an American household. After a garment was completely used up, thrifty housewives would save even the tiniest bits of fabric for quilts, meticulously cutting out any stains and mending tears. In the 1800s and early 1900s, peddlers (often called “the rag man”) would trade wares for discarded clothing, pieces of rugs and other fabric scraps. According to the American Agriculturalist of 1880, a worn out pair of pantaloons could fetch 20 cents, not a bad sum more than a century ago.

My mother’s quilts were made of all manner of cloth, including corduroy, wool, flannel and cotton. I didn’t realize it then, but her hodgepodge mix of colors, patterns and textures made the most fascinating quilts.

When I made my first quilt as a young woman, I bought yards of crisp, new coordinated polyester fabric. Every piece was perfectly matched in weight, design and consistency, right down to the threads per inch. I was quite proud of my first and following creations, but came to realize my quilts back then did not have the homey feel and character my mother’s did.

Today, I happily sew with glad rags just as Mom did and believe I have recaptured that comfy-as-an-old-quilt feel in my stitching. Plus, I can just glance at one of my quilts and see my grown children as toddlers again, with smidgens of my daughter’s dresses and boys’ shirts mixed among the squares. My expense is minimal and nothing goes to waste.

To sew with recycled fabric:

  • Make a tiny snip at seams and then tear the fabric instead of cutting it. This will reveal the fabric grain. For small quilt pieces, following the grain is not necessary, so don’t throw out tiny scraps if the grain is going the wrong way.
  • Bag up buttons, zippers and other notions to sell, donate or use in craft projects, ornaments or children’s costumes.
  • If you use 100-percent cotton and other natural fabrics, not manmade (polyester, rayon, spandex, etc.), the scraps can be composted in your yard or garden. T-shirts and jeans make especially good mulch. Worms love rotting cotton.
  • Men’s clothing in particular is usually worn to a frazzle, but can still yield salvageable fabric behind pockets, at the upper back of shirt sleeves and beneath yokes.
  • Save loosely woven or threadbare fabric for disposable rags instead of paper towels. I keep a stack of 4” T-shirt squares near the kitchen sink for oiling cast iron pans, for example.
  • Often, if a fabric is too faded or stained to be pretty, it can be used wrong-side up. This can even be done just for variety.
  • Ask at yard sales and thrift stores for clothing and fabric items they intend to throw out.
  • Ball up strips of thick jean seams or elastic from fitted bedsheets to use around the homestead for such things as tying up tomato plants.
  • For an especially treasured quilt, include pieces from Dad’s shirt or Grandma’s old housedress.
  • Prewashing is no longer necessary (unless a garment smells like mothballs or musty) because fabrics from garments and household linens have already done all the shrinking, stretching and bleeding of colors they’re going to do.
  • Don’t be afraid to have fun and mix fabric weights and textures. Large-print patterns, like those in drapes, cut into interesting small squares and triangles.

See us at the MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR

At the MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR in West Bend, Wisc., on August 8-9, I demonstrated how to use a treadle sewing machine and use recycled fabric. I will also have with me several quilts made entirely of discarded clothing. Be sure to stop by Booth 1907 (the year Mother’s Day was conceived) to say hello and learn more about sewing the way great-grandma did it.

To see more of my efforts with glad rags, please see our blog, Sewing and Quilting the Old Way with Glad Rags.

Linda Holliday lives in the Missouri Ozarks where she and her husband formed Well WaterBoy Products, a company devoted to helping people live more self-sufficiently off grid with human power, and invented the WaterBuck Pump.

Photos by Linda Holliday; old photo courtesy of Darla DeGroot


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.

Getting Started With Milk Sheep on the Homestead, Part 2: Choosing and Caring for Sheep

East Friesian Cross Milk Sheep 

East Friesian cross milk sheep breed

In Part 1 of this series, we discussed getting your housing and supplies together for keeping milk sheep. Once that is done, you are ready to bring home your flock.

Choosing and Buying Sheep for Milking

There are several different breeds of milk sheep worldwide, but in America most are mixed breeds. East Friesian and Lacaune mixes are most common and many also have wool breeds mixed in to improve the quality of the wool. As you begin looking for dairy sheep, you might find that you are somewhat limited by what is available near you since they are somewhat rare in the USA. Because most are mixes and they are not very common here, there can be a huge variance in milk production from flock to flock, and even from ewe to ewe. Asking the right questions and doing your research will help ensure you end up with ewes that fulfill what you are looking for.

Consider lineage. When choosing a milk sheep, you want to be sure that they come from lines with proven good dairy qualities. If you are looking at a proven ewe, there are several questions you should ask. How much milk did she produce on average last season? In large scale milking, milk amounts are measured in pounds and often are per milking season. For small homesteads like ours, I like to talk in quarts per day, since it is more understandable and reasonable for the backyard homesteader.

Will you be milk-sharing? Milk production varies a lot with dairy sheep, and it also varies with how they are managed. Milk-sharing with a lamb (or two) and once-a-day milking will give lower amounts than twice-a-day milking with no lambs on. At our farm we milk-share with our lambs. Our best producers give us about a quart at once-a-day milking when sharing with one lamb for 12 hours a day. After weaning the lamb at three months of age, our best producers give us ½ gallon per day when milking twice a day. 

Number of lambs. You should also ask, how many lambs does she tend to have each time?  Ewes that have multiple births produce more milk. Has she had any lambing difficulties?  Does she bond well with her lambs and mother them?  If you want to milk-share with the lambs it will be important that she knows how to mother them. Has she been hand-milked, or machine-milked?  What is her temperament like in the stanchion?  If possible, you should visit her during milking time and see what she is like and how it goes.

Body conformation. You should also evaluate her conformation either by photos or in-person. Her udder should be big, but not too pendulous. The attachment to the body should be wide and strong. She should have 2 teats - some sheep have extra, non-functioning teats that can get in the way during milking. If you plan to hand-milk you will want the teats to be as large as possible for ease of milking and have a lower position on the udder. Her body conformation should be good - straight legs, even mouth with no overbite, etc. And her eyes and nose should be clear. She should look healthy. If you are buying a weanling or unproven yearling, you would want to ask the same questions about her mother. And when looking at a weanling or yearling through photos or in person you will want to look for good conformation of both parents, as well as the lamb herself. Also ask about how the farm manages vaccinations, worming, and what testing they do for communicable diseases. No sheep will be perfect in all areas, but it is important to be aware of what you are buying and what her strengths and weaknesses are and be comfortable with them.

Decide how many sheep you want and can successfully manage based on your space and other resources. You will need at least 2 ewes because sheep are gregarious and don’t do well without other sheep around. Consider your space, your feed abilities, and your milk needs realistically before buying so you don’t end up with too many.

Bringing a sheep home. Once you have found the sheep you want, it is time to bring them home. Feeding properly will be very important to good milk production and will be affected by many factors, including your climate and whether you use pasture or purchased hay. At our farm, we don’t have pasture. We feed grass hay to the rams, non-pregnant ewes, and ewes during the first couple months of pregnancy. At about 6 weeks from lambing, when we shear (see below), we are able to do a thorough evaluation of the ewes condition and either start transitioning her to end-of-pregnancy diet at that point, or if she is overweight we wait until four weeks out to start the transition.

Food rations. Our end-of-pregnancy rations include slowly transitioning to alfalfa and adding in a sweet feed grain. By about 2 weeks before lambing the pregnant ewes are fed 100% alfalfa and about 0.5 pound of sweet feed. Once they lamb, they are kept on alfalfa and their sweet feed is increased for milk production. They stay on that feeding ration until we are ready to stop milking. Lambs are given access to a creep feeder with alfalfa and grain by about a month of age, and that continues until four or five months of age.

Yearly Cycle of Basic Milk Sheep Care

You may have bought ewes that are currently lactating, or pregnant, or weanlings that have never been bred before. No matter what situation you start with, your yearly cycle will look the same.

Breeding. In order to have milk from a sheep, she must be bred and give birth yearly. Sheep breed seasonally from about September through December. Their gestation is 147 days. When planning your breeding you need to look at when you want them to be lambing, and work back from there. Because we live in the high-altitude Rockies and experience freezing temperatures into May, we like to lamb later in the year than most people. We breed November/December to get April/May lambs. This decreases our chances of dealing with chilled lambs.

Consider cycle. If you bought a breeding ram for your flock, you will want to keep him away from the ewes until you are ready to breed them. If you do not have a ram you will need to either lease one and bring it to your farm, or take your ewes to a farm that has one. A ewe’s breeding cycle is about 17 days, so you will want them to stay with the ram until you see a breeding and then don’t see a re-breeding 17 days later, or for at least 2 full cycles to increase your chances of pregnancy. If you see the breeding you can mark down the date and know when they are due to lamb. If not, you will have to count on the end-of-pregnancy symptoms to try to guess when it will be time.

Shearing. Milk sheep need to be shorn once a year to remove their wool. If you do not shear them, the wool will continue to grow and mat and become a health issue for them. Their wool adds to the value of having milk sheep because they provide 2 different items for your homestead (milk and wool). Pure-bred milk sheep generally have a wool that has more itch-factor and is not as sought-after for yarn, but it is great for making rugs and other items that don’t touch the skin. Cross-breeding milk sheep to wool breeds can improve the quality of the wool and make their fleece more valuable. But care needs to be taken to not lose their dairy qualities in the process.

 Wool fleece

We recommend shearing about 6 weeks before lambing each year. Scheduling a shearer to come to your farm can be tricky, since most people shear near the same time of year. So be sure to plan ahead and contact the shearer well ahead of when you want to be scheduled for shearing.

Vaccinations and Worming. Discuss with your vet what type of vaccination and worming schedule you should use.

Lambing and Milking. Now that you have the basics of keeping milk sheep, it is time to move on to the fun part - the reason you got milk sheep. Watch for Part 3 to learn about lambing, milking your milk sheep, and using the milk.

Kat Ludlam is a high-altitude homesteader and owner of Willow Creek Farm in the Colorado Rockies, where she breeds landrace sheep, chickens, and crops accustomed to elevation. Check out Kat’s custom fiber-processing business, Willow Creek Fiber Mill, and read all of Kat’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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One-Woman Quest to Remake a Rural Property with Little Money

The author’s rural property before her efforts to transform it into a homestead. See the “after” photo below.

It’s been a long and interesting journey taking a piece of bush land and attempting to turn it into a sustainable homestead. When I bought my 6 ½ acres, I hadn’t even seen the whole property. It was so thick with brambles and dense brush that I had to depend on the real estate agent’s promise that a small creek crossed the back part of the land.  It took years of clearing the brush and trees, just a bit at a time, before I could even decide where anything should go. (Read about these beginnings in my previous posts.)

I would make a plan and then have to alter it because of circumstances or conditions. Each season brought with it changes to the property and something new to be learned. Luckily, I had a house 20 minutes away, so I was able to take my time: I noticed that one quarter of the land was underwater in the spring. I discovered which areas were the worst for bugs in the summer. I studied which trees were the most beautiful in the autumn. I realized I had an awfully long driveway to shovel in the winter.

The more time I spent on the property, the more I learned about it. Tracking where the sun rose and set and from which direction the winds blew helped me to make some important decisions. We have black flies, mosquitoes, horseflies, deer flies and ticks, sometimes in swarms. The smallest of them can take a man down. The sitting area down by the creek needed to be opened up to allow more air flow. Good air circulation along with gravel underfoot made a substantial improvement in reducing harmful insects. I knew it was better to cut just a few trees down at a time, rather then regret having taken the wrong ones down.

It was years before the final picture came into focus.  Having that time, allowed me to make much better plans.

Plowing with Pigs

My property is actually two parcels of land that are the exact opposite of each other. One is lowland, one is a small mountain. Part of the lowland seemed like an ideal spot to put in a garden — until I tried to put a shovel in it, that is. The land had been cleared with a bush hog prior to buying it and looked like an open field. What couldn’t be seen was a dense alder root system lying just beneath the surface.

It would be far too labour-intensive to turn the soil by hand, and I didn’t have any money to hire someone with equipment. A friend recommended getting pigs, an adventure I detailed here. Pigs will turn over the top foot of earth, eating all the greens and pulling up the roots.

Discovering Elderberries for Juice

As the first parcel of land was being cleared by pigs, I discovered that a section of that field was full of elderberry bushes. The elderberry root system was the last thing the pigs focused on, so the bushes survived the tilling. The first year, I collected 50 pounds of berries!

Elderberry is incredibly healthy and makes great juice. I simply fill the mason jars halfway with berries, add sugar, then top up the jars with boiling water, and seal them in a hot water bath. The juice is best if allowed to sit for a couple of months, or longer, if you can wait. I strain the juice for drinking, and add the berries to yogurt. Elderberries are also great in pies, with or without apples or peaches. I also eat them raw, but it’s important to remove all of the stems.

Lessons in Bartering

After the pigs cleared the land, I used them for bartering. Two pigs provided four men with one-half pig each, cut wrapped and frozen, in return for one day of labour each. A good deal for all. Well, maybe not so good for the pigs.

My pigs lived a very happy (although short) life in a huge field with an abundance of plants, mud and shade. I’m content to know that they lived well, up to the moment when they changed from being rototillers to becoming pork chops. My father was a distributor for a Dutch cookie company for many years and I received all of his out-of-date cookies. The pigs feasted on raspberry turnovers and sugar cookies, making it the best tasting pork ever!

Two tall poles support the crossbar and hook where the pigs were hung to be cleaned, and my friend Joanne suggested I soften the look by hanging a basket of flowers from the hook when it wasn’t in use. Instead, I painted a sign: till death do us part, which captures my heartfelt, albeit short-term commitment to my pigs. Pass the gravy please.

The author’s home after her many improvements.

Siting Gardens, Bushes and Woodlot

Clearing the land just a bit at a time, as pig bartering allowed, I was able to get a much better idea of where my vegetable garden should go, and which area should be left for the elderberry to spread. Elderberry prefers wetter land, and being underwater in the spring doesn’t seem to bother it.

The south-facing slope of my second property, which was to become my house site and front yard, was covered in balsam trees. It was a thick forest that blocked outall of the sun. I wanted to retain the forest look, but the type of trees and where they were situated was important. I wanted my property to be user friendly, for me and for wildlife. As the evergreen trees came down, the smaller maples were given a chance to grow.

It’s not just the land owner who takes down trees. A wicked storm one year in March took down six trees. Every couple of years, I lose at least one tree to wind, usually balsams. There is also evidence that a few trees were burnt by lightning in past years. Clearing the land and leaving only one or two favorite trees means the remaining ones are more susceptible to storm damage — best to have a few extras.

Perspective and Positivity

Planning is important but we must bear in mind that plans are subject to change. Nature has its own plans, and each day its own troubles. Droughts, floods, tornadoes, fires, disease, and pestilence are all potential hazards. Accepting that these challenges are a part of life, making the best of things and remaining hopeful and positive, is fundamental in staying happy.

The slow progress due to my financial situation has enabled me to make much better final decisions. Had I had lots of money and built immediately, I might not have chosen the best spot for my house and gardens.  The elderberry bushes may have been destroyed. Taking our time and enjoying the journey, despite the setbacks and pitfalls, is important.

Developing my rural property has been a blessing that I am truly grateful for. Leaving the land in better shape then when we found it is a legacy to be proud of. Although I’ve realized that it’s hard to keep up with nature (the brush and brambles keep coming back), I’m not giving up on my quest. Each day is an opportunity to work with the earth, and that in itself is a joy.

Jo deVries (Jo of the Woods) designed and helped build her off-grid Ontario home, where she and her son have enjoyed a pioneer-type life-style without electricity. She is the author of Does Your House Know Where South Is? and generously shares what she has learned during her on-going journey of turning a piece of bush land in to a self-sufficient homestead. Connect with Jo of the Woods and read all of Jo’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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Should You Assist Chicks During Hatching?

chick assisted hatch

It's summer, and incubators are abuzz with activity as backyard chicken breeders are hatching batch after batch of chicks.

Day 21 of incubation is always an exciting time. You can hear cheeping and eggshells are cracking, and your new chicks are coming out one by one — except the ones that don't.

Raising chickens is a precarious journey of loss and rebound. You can do everything right and still lose birds, because that's life. There is rarely 100 percent success in egg hatching. It's expected, but still it's heart-wrenching when a chick breaks through the shell and then gets stuck. Then you, too, are stuck in a dilemma: should you help? Or should you let nature take its course?

Here's my take on this: By popping those eggs in the incubator, you have already strayed from nature's course. There are many reasons to use an incubator, including timing, quantity, and reliability, but no matter what, I have always found that hatching rates are better with a reliable broody that keeps perfect conditions of temperature and humidity.

In other words, if something goes amiss during hatching in the incubator, it's usually my "fault". Maybe the temperature was too low or the humidity not high enough. Either way, it's my responsibility to help all the chicks that possibly have a chance of making it.

Some people say that chicks that are unable to come out of the shell on their own are deformed anyway and should be culled. I have not found it to be so. Often, the chick gets stuck to the shell because of sub-optimal hatching conditions, but with some assistance, will be fine within a couple of days.

In the photo, you can see one of the chicks from our latest hatch. I practically had to peel the shell as if it were a hard-boiled egg. It was pretty weak when it hatched, but a few days later, I couldn't tell the difference between this chick and its peers anymore. There would have been absolutely no sense in letting this, now perfectly healthy, chick die.

So when should you assist in hatching? A crucial principle is "first do no harm". If the chick doesn't have enough time to absorb the yolk sac, they will die. In the majority of the cases, I'd say it's better to step back.

However, if the chick has pipped (made a hole in the shell) but not zipped (pecked its way around the perimeter of the egg) for 24 hours, or if it has started zipping but failed to continue, and the membranes are drying and turning yellow, the chick may be stuck.

In this case, prepare a bowl of lukewarm water, take the hatching egg out of the incubator and, wetting the membrane just below the shell with your fingers, begin gently breaking off bits of shell. Sometimes the chick will be able to get on with minimal assistance. Sometimes you will have to do the whole job, like with my little friend here - the membrane was so dry and stuck I had to peel it off even when the shell was already gone.

Be very careful not to damage the chick's fragile skin while chipping off the eggshell. Chicks are extremely delicate, and you could easily make them bleed. Go slow and steady when you help them hatch.

I hope you enjoy a rewarding hatching season with excellent success rates.

Anna Twitto’s academic background in nutrition made her care deeply about real food and seek ways to obtain it. Anna, her husband, and their four children live on the outskirts of a small town in northern 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 Amazon.com Author PageConnect with Anna on Facebook and read more about her current projects on her blogRead all Anna's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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Back in the Homestead Saddle: Starting from Scratch amid Health Crisis

Fenced In Raised Bed Garden

Seven years ago, we moved back to the U.S. after 10 years in Australia. We started blogging about our plans to build a homestead on the 5 acres we had acquired outside San Antonio, Texas. Most of the blogs were about what we were learning in Australia about cheese making, wine making, beekeeping plus our plans to build a “barndominium” (read that earlier Australia to Texas series here).

We started building the barndominium while still in Australia, working intensely during periods when we returned to the United States. Finally, I returned while my wife, Julie, finished up working. I completed the barndominium, and we set to work on the property and building large gardens and cultivating crops that would make us somewhat food independent. We developed some large raised beds, worked with neighbors and family on livestock and built much of our planned homestead.

Then, life happened. Both my knees became very painful and that made maintaining the property and gardens increasingly difficult. Julie was still working and was traveling a lot, so she could not pick up the slack for me. Our daughter and family relocated 100 miles away, north of Austin.

Much of the joy of our life back in Texas evaporated and we had only been back less than four years. We needed to make a change, even if it meant downsizing our dreams.

Downsizing a Farm-Life Dream (and with Great Ambition)

We spent much of our adult working lives in suburbia and in various locations around the world. We didn’t want to go back to that type of life. We like the water and in Australia had always lived on or near the water, as many Aussies do. On the Northwest side of Austin, Lake Travis made a good target.

The south side of Lake Travis appeared too much like suburbia, but we found many options on the north side of the lake. We would be a little further from town (Julie relocated her job to Austin), but we could get a house with ½ acre and room for a mini-version of our homestead. Better still, the property had a couple of fruit trees and, because we had bequeathed gardens and fruit trees to others every time we moved, we dubbed the fantastic Naval Orange tree the “Karma Tree”.

We moved nearly four years ago with plans for raised-bed gardens, seriously cleaning up the property, building out a nice backyard pool and outdoor kitchen, and perhaps upgrading the home from the neglect it saw over its 35 years of existence.

Better from a quality of life standpoint, we found community groups in the musical and theatre arts — activities and hobbies we enjoyed and had not had time for during our working career. Such groups didn’t exist near where we lived outside San Antonio without driving an hour or so each way. We became very active in these community groups and, along with getting physical therapy on my knees to avoid surgery, procrastinated getting started on our gardens and other homestead activities. It was always “as soon as my knees get better” or “right after our next musical performance” type excuses.

Our fruit trees were productive, and I made and canned enough marmalade to keep family and friends well stocked. We started nursing our pear tree back to life and after our homestead south of San Antonio sold, we built the swimming pool and decks. There was still much to do though.

Homesteading through Health Impacts, Tragedy, and a Pandemic

The following summer, I finally decided to get knee surgery. The first surgery was complete, and I headed home the following day. That evening some of our family who were relocating to our area arrived and, tragically, our nephew had heart failure and died despite the best efforts of family and EMT. We spent the next few months both recovering from surgery and the loss as well as helping family adjust.

The second knee surgery followed over the Christmas holiday and the next few months continued to busy with therapy and family activities. Again, life events took over and the gardens and homestead suffered.

The last 12 months have seen a lot of changes (I’m sure for many of you as well). My knees were back near 100 percent. I was getting much more active and peeling off a bit of the weight from a few years of lower activity. We continued to work on our property and had solid plans for the outdoor kitchen, interior renovations and the gardens, trees, and sheds. We acquired many of the materials to do all the projects, scheduled the work (where we needed outside contractors) and started the demo and preparation work early in 2020.

I was doing a fair amount of substitute teaching work to help buy the materials, so my time was somewhat limited, and we expected the renovations and building activities to take much of the rest of the year. Then the Covid-19 virus started making news in the U.S. We were in Australia during the SARS epidemic, and I was doing a lot of work in and out of China so we were extremely aware of the effects of a pandemic as we had lived through one from close range.

Suddenly, we all had lots of time on our hands. Our community music and theatre groups shut down. Our church and church choir activities were on hold. Julie was working all the time from home rather than driving to the office four or five days a week. I launched into the demo and renovations with some enthusiasm as those activities distracted me substantially from the continual stream of bad news.

We were not oblivious or naïve, either. We had pantries stocked, freezers full, a fair amount of canned and frozen items and even quite a few gallons of fresh water if needed. We learned those habits on our previous homestead and never changed — all good for us at the time. We figured out how to get things without leaving the house and since we had bought months’ worth of building materials and had good internet, were very satisfied in our newly isolated condition.

Hand Holding Yellow Squash

First squash of the 2020 season

Making Progress on Rebuilding a Homestead from Scratch

We finished the house renovations (at least to a high degree) and happily turned our attention to the outdoor gardens.

In our previous homestead, we had a really nice and large area so we had nine 3-by-10-foot raised gardens in a 3-by-3 grid. We also had a large compost pile, a sturdy chain-link fence around the entire with automatic watering (hot Texas summers mean lots of regular watering). Each raised bed could be fitted in the winter with plastic hoops covered with plastic, so we had two gardening seasons a year.

They were wonderful gardens, but we didn’t have that much room and frankly didn’t want anything that large to maintain. Instead, I built a U-shaped garden from three 3-by-10-foot raised boxes. In the current gardens, the corner posts are 8 feet tall and the entire garden is covered with fence wire with 3-inch squares. The top is also covered with 30-percent shade cloth. Summer days here are long and hot with intense sun, and the shade cloth helps protect the plants from a bit of the intense midday sun. The sides and top covers will make it easy to cover the garden with plastic before the first freeze in December — we usually only have 10 days of freezing weather so a plastic film cover and simple incandescent lighting (old-fashioned Christmas tree lights are my favorite) turn the garden into a greenhouse and enable us to garden all year. In fact, I like our winter garden season the best.

Back on the Homestead Saddle (and Writing About it Too)

As a result of the pandemic shutdown, I am back in the saddle again. Our musical and theatrical productions are shut down until 2021. Our church choir, the same. I am not eager to substitute teach until a vaccine is available. Given the current upswing in Covid-19 infections, who knows for sure if we will have school in the fall (we are in Texas, so I am guessing we will try).

But guess what: I am really, really happy that we are back to gardening and, in the midst of a very tough time — neither of us has a job right now but that’s minor compared with what many are dealing with — we have a refuge of happiness right on our property. We take long walks near the lake each day, tend our garden, deal with our animals, and have safe visits with our family nearby. What is not to like about that.

I plan on continuing to blog about our experiences, which you can follow the full series here, and have included some shots of our new gardens and backyard areas. Things I’ll write about:

• Selecting suitable land for a ½-acre homestead

• Mentally and physically preparing for a homestead rebuild project

• Energy: Wind and Solar (we have equipment we will be installing soon)

• Water - procuring enough garden in Texas for the garden

• Food preservation: canning, fermentation – things we have been doing for several years now

• Food growing: What we are doing with our garden

• Home wine making: Something we enjoy a lot and have a log of experience with

 

If there are any topics that you are the most interested in, let us know and we’ll prioritize those. As life has taught us during the past couple of years, none of us have a guarantee for tomorrow anyway, so let us make the most of today.

 

Jim Christie is a retired IT sales and marketing executive and sales person, aspiring builder, homesteader, beekeeper, cheese maker and gardener. He moved to rural Texas with his family after ten years in Australia. Read all of Jim's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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Keep Summer Bees Cool

 A watering tank for your bees that automatically fills itself when the water level falls

When it’s hot in summertime, a full-size colony of bees will use a lot of water — a lot more than you think. At a minimum they’ll use a quart a day. Maximum, a gallon a day. For every colony you have. Think of how much that is for 10 colonies for a week of hot, hot weather. At the very least, that’s 10 quarts a day, for seven days — 70 quarts, or nearly 20 gallons of water, minimum if you allow for some of that water to evaporate naturally.

When large colonies start collecting a gallon a day, you have 70 gallons you have to have available — that’s more than a 55 gallon honey drum plumb full in just a week.

How to Provide Beehives with Water

And they will get that water somewhere. The closer that water is the better, of course. The easier the better. The safer the better. You do supply all the water your bees need, right? If you’re lucky, you have a nearby spring, river, lake or pond. Lakes and rivers are great if there’s not a lot of people traffic nearby, wading, fishing, or boating. But smaller bodies of water — puddles, creeks and ponds — can be problematic during hot summers, because they tend to go dry, right about the time the bees need them most. Keeping an ample supply of fresh water just for your bees is a no-brainer that we far too often overlook. So first, make that happen. How? Good question.

Build a pond. If you don’t have that pond, consider making one near your bees if possible. A small, continuously filled fish pond is ideal. Installing an automatic filler is necessary, and being able to disconnect it in the winter is also necessary, but it’s a good first choice. But, if that’s not in the cards…if you are on a roof for instance, a smaller version of this is possible, that is, a self-filling livestock watering device can work and is a good idea. They don’t go dry because a float valve turns on when the water level falls below a preset point and refills the water holder (just like the pond). Of course you have to have a dedicated water line to that device…and a flexible hose doesn’t work as well as a ridged pvc pipe, so there’s that hitch to get over, but it’s possible.

A little afternoon shade especially later in the summer is not all bad

A slow-drip faucet works, but remember: A gallon a day per hive. It better not be too slow. Pails, pools, stock tanks, barrels…anything that holds enough water works. But the smaller the container, the more you have to fill it the more likely it will go dry on just the day the bees need it most. And once dry, they go somewhere else…bird baths, swimming pools, pet bowls, air conditioner drains…lots of places you don’t want a bunch of bees. Bees need water and will get it somewhere. You wouldn’t think of letting your dog, cat, chickens or other animals go without water. Why your bees?

Ventilation for Beehives

Screened bottom boards have taken a roller coaster ride in popularity during the past few years because of their role, or no role in Varroa IPM, but for ventilation Varroa plays no role at all. More than 120 years ago, A. I. Root suggested, and then made for sale screened bottom boards for his hives expressly for better ventilation. He used window mesh screen because he wasn’t worried about Varroa or other creatures, he just wanted fresh air inside.

Langstroth was insistent on having fresh air inside his hives and made certain there were many and large openings for air to go bottom to top and escape rapidly. For your bees, use screened bottom boards in the summer, and make sure there is escape above for all that warm, moist air to rise and release. If you use inner covers or crown boards raise them up so air can move up even faster than simply through the ventilation holes provided. Lift up the cover, too, for better air movement. The bees will guard the cracks and crevices you create, and you can always reduce them if you think robbing might be a problem…and it might if it is so hot that the plants have quit producing and scout bees find a weak hive to plunder.

Some beekeepers make sure each box has one less frame: nine for 10 frame, seven for eight frame, to widen just a bit the gap between frames to assist air movement — not a bad idea, especially if you have seen hives so hot the wax begins to sag. That is not a pretty sight. When it becomes very warm, say 110 degrees or so, it gets soft, and loses its shape and lets go of the frame if it is heavy with honey or brood.

If your climate is so hot, so very hot that sitting in the afternoon sun rises the inside temperature to wax softening  conditions, then afternoon sun, no matter that Varroa or small hive beetles hate full sun, should be avoided. That dappled afternoon shade isn’t all bad. 

Some beekeepers go so far as to offset supers on the back side of the hive, leaving a one inch gap or so, so hot air can escape from every super and not have to travel all the way to the top of the stack. Bees will guard these entrances, and even in very rainy weather little water will get in the hive, and then, it will simply run out the front door. The increased ventilation these gaps allow more than makes up for this small inconvenience.

And better ventilation is good for other things than just being cool. Think honey dehydration…you need to stay hydrated, but your bees want to dehydrate all that honey they are bringing in. And if warm, moist air can’t readily escape, it takes more bees fanning to get it dry, and until it’s dry there’s less room to store incoming nectar…it’s a downward spiral from the bees’ perspective…so give ‘em room, give ‘em ventilation, and give ‘em enough water to get them through another hot, hot summer.

An automatic watering device is perfect for your bees because it doesn't go on vacation, take the day off, go somewhere else to work, or just plain forget to refill itself. 

Full sun in the spring can be good because it keeps the hives warmer, but later in the summer, when it gets really hot, those trees in the back will provide some welcome shade.

Kim Flottum is the Editor-in-Chief of Bee Culture magazine, a leading beekeeping resources covering the practical side of keeping honeybees, from one or two colonies to hundreds. He is the author of In Business with Bees, The Honey Connoisseur, and The Backyard Beekeeper, among others. Before writing about bees, Kim worked four years in the USDA Honey Bee Research Lab, studying pollination ecology. Read all of Kim’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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