Readers’ tips on developing homesteading skills, giving to back to the community, save time and money by buying in bulk, utilizing minimal resources, and more!
Discover New Homesteading Skills
Something I discovered as a trainer is that learning by doing is easier. For most homesteading skills, on-the-job training works best and allows you to complete projects as you learn. Several essential projects which are important to learn as a homesteader, include sourcing alternative energies, greenhouse building, and gardening. Here are some of my suggestions for readers on how to skill up cheaply and efficiently on the homestead.
Book learning. Books are the cheapest and most efficient way to study new skills. Rather than just reading a book on a project, read it while building your new potting shed, garden greenhouse (mine is pictured at right), or animal shelter. Apply the techniques as you go. If you mess up or get stuck on a detail, take time to do web research or pick up a different book for an alternate perspective until you feel comfortable with new concepts. Book learning works great for skills that can be learned over time, such as building and gardening.
Community college courses. Most community colleges offer personal enrichment classes, such as cabinetmaking, winemaking or beer brewing, high-tunnel building, welding, and more. Classes often cost less than $200 and include a hands-on component. They also include workshop access so you can complete projects and make sure you enjoy using a skill before you invest in your own equipment.
Apprenticeships. For most of human history, higher education was for the well-to-do elite. The rest of us mere mortals learned by working with others. This is still a great way to build practical homesteading skills. Many small businesses would be thrilled to give you skills training in exchange for free or cheap labor. However, being an apprentice means sticking to your commitment so the experience is beneficial to both parties. For shorter commitments, consider doing seasonal work and projects, such as pruning, harvesting and processing fruits and nuts, one-time building projects, event preparation, spring shearing, honey harvesting, and winter hive preparation.
Workshops. Traveling to workshops isn’t practical for me because I keep livestock. Instead, I like to hold workshops on my homestead. Last year, we hosted meat expert and award-winning author of The Ethical Meat Handbook (and Mother Earth News Fair presenter) Meredith Leigh to help with our pig slaughter and guide us through butchering, sausage making, and meat curing. It was cheaper to have her come to our homestead than for us to travel to a similar workshop and hire someone to take care of our homestead. In addition, we were able to share the workshop with our friends and family.
Gatherings. Invite all of your friends to teach a skill in exchange for learning new skills from others. You can do this in the format of a club with regular meetings, or as a mega-weekend with campfires, food, and story sharing. Not only will participants gain skills, but they’ll also build community.
Lowgap, North Carolina
Alternative Chicken Coop
A lot of chicken predators prowl our area, where I live with my dog Gracie, indoor cat Moon Shadow, and our two hens and Bantam-Cochin rooster. So, when my washing machine finally needed to be repurposed, I decided it would make a great nighttime shelter for the chicks.
I removed the innards from the washer, cut a removable plywood top and floor for the inside, filled it with straw, and — voilà! — I had a safe chicken apartment with the addition of a window. The flock’s run and house are situated under the covered corner of my deck so they can wander out but remain sheltered.
The chickens are grown up now, and so far no critters have gotten to them. I shut their door every evening after they use the ramp I made for them, and then let them out the following morning when the rooster starts crowing.
Burnt Ranch, California
The production of jeans isn’t very eco-friendly, so I want to get as many uses out of them as I can. Making small rugs is a great way to put old jeans and towels to good use. Our family alone doesn’t wear out enough jeans to make many of these rugs, but I find that other people we know are often getting rid of worn-out jeans and are happy to give them to me. Yard sales and thrift stores are also great sources. The pattern for these rugs comes from Reinvention: Sewing with Rescued Materials by Maya Donenfeld, and it uses small squares of denim pieced together in a technique similar to quilting. I back the denim squares with worn-out towels for support. This is a great way to use old textiles that would otherwise end up in the landfill.
Freezing Scraps for Future Stocks
I keep a small garbage bag in my freezer. As I’m preparing meals, I dump all the vegetable ends, stalks from herbs, bones, and bits of meat into the bag. When it’s time to make my bone broth, I dump the frozen scraps into a large pot with a chicken carcass. No waste, and the broth makes a spectacular base for flavorful soup.
Jemseg, New Brunswick
My son built me a self-sifting worm bin! He built it out of rot-resistant lumber, and the bottom is a piece of metal roofing. It’s set on a slight slant so I can catch casting tea in 5-gallon buckets. It has legs for added height, which makes it easier for me to access, and a hinged metal roof.
To make the bin self-sifting, my son installed a piece of hardware cloth across the middle of the bin. I feed on one side of the bin, and when a good bit of worm castings builds up, I start feeding the other side. I usually scoop up and add a handful or two of worms to get them started. The rest of the worms crawl through the hardware cloth to get to the food. The side with worm castings is worm-free.
My worms eat leaves, shredded paper, kitchen scraps, and more. I use the casting tea from the bin when I transplant vegetables and as a treat for my fruit trees.
Cleaning Vintage Glass
I recently purchased a beautiful, large, vintage glass canister for $4 at a local thrift store. The glass was foggy with age and dust. It needed a deep clean and added shine for its life new with me. I have a recipe for cleaning glass to share, featured below, which will leave your old and used vintage glass shining like new. I use this technique on all sorts of glass items, from vases to lamps.
1. Spread out a hand towel on your kitchen counter.
2. Place the glass container onto the hand towel.
3. In a small bowl, make a thick paste of lemon juice and baking soda. Start by adding small amounts of each ingredient until you achieve a pasty consistency.
4. Using a small cloth rag, apply the paste onto the unwashed, dry glass container, and rub it all over the glass. This will remove any grime and film that’s accumulated. Apply the paste on both the inside and outside. You can use a soft toothbrush to work the paste into the detailed areas.
5. Completely rinse off the polished glass with warm or hot water.
6. Fill a plastic dishwashing basin with hot water and add dish soap.
7. Place the rinsed-off glass container in the soapy water and gently wash it with a cloth dishrag. When finished, rinse off the glass with hot water, and let it air dry.
Utica, New York
I keep a plastic coffee container in my kitchen to collect all food waste that I can add to my compost pile. I know that eggshells make great additions to compost, but they don’t decompose easily. So now I take a small plastic fold-top sandwich bag, break my eggs directly into it, smashing the shells up well, and then dump the shell pieces into my kitchen food-waste container. No mess, no hassle. The smashed-up eggshells can even go directly into my compost pile or straight into my garden.
Rock Valley, Iowa
Carrots and Burlap
Burlap is the best material I’ve found to help encourage carrot seeds to germinate. Burlap allows light to penetrate through to the seeds, and makes it easy for me to keep the seeds damp without disturbing them. I soak the burlap thoroughly before placing it over the planted seeds.
It may take two people to place it without disturbing the seeds. I secure the corners with ground staples, water at least once a day, and wait for green shoots to start poking through the weave before I remove the burlap.
Celia De Frank
Big Bear City, California
Every once in a while, I have a small amount of food I want to can. Not wanting to fire up my large water bath canning kettle, I came up with an ingenious way to can just one jar. I use a tall, slender asparagus steaming pot. It holds one jar perfectly and has a metal basket inside to support the jar. I simply prep as instructed and process according to my canning manual. Easy!
The Sharing Garden Greenhouse
We recently retired from the farm and relocated to a rural community. We’ve taken produce to the farmers market before, but now, we want to focus on helping others. We share most of our vegetables through a local church youth group and a food bank. We also bring flowers to the local hospital, library, and wellness center.
Because one of our first priorities in our new location was the construction of a greenhouse, I purchased a 10-by-12-foot greenhouse kit. Next, I excavated an area 12 by 18 feet and 12 inches deep to serve as a base and provide drainage. I then filled this area with limestone rock.
I also decided to use silicone to reinforce each window panel to the frame. I later extended the greenhouse by 10 feet using livestock panels secured on 4-by-6-inch timbers to accommodate the 11⁄2-acre garden. After the greenhouse was assembled, we constructed benches from used cedar lumber and added fans for circulation. The total project cost approximately $1,000.
Buy in Bulk for Your Benefit
Purchasing certain foods in bulk is a great way to save money, packaging, and shopping time, while opening up new opportunities to support good farmers. We raise much of our own food on our homestead farm, but still need to outsource kitchen staples, such as flour, sugar, salt, dried pasta, and nuts.
Buying these items in bulk has allowed us to virtually eliminate normal shopping trips, reduce packaging waste, and ensure that more of our food dollars go to farmers instead of middlemen. Here are some tips and considerations for buying and handling bulk foods in a homestead setting.
Understand your needs. Knowing what you eat, how much you eat, and in which season you eat it can help you use bulk purchasing most effectively. We tend to keep more sugar on hand during late spring and summer for preserving fruits and fermenting drinks. Salt comes in handy in late summer and fall for fermentation and meat preservation. Cases of vinegar can be used for year-round pickling.
The shelf life of various foods is an important factor interacting with your consumption patterns. We started buying brown rice in 25-pound bags, but found that it tended to go rancid before we could finish it, even though we eat a fair amount of rice. Bulk buying isn’t sustainable or sensible if it just leads to more food waste.
In general, the more processed (and less healthy) a food is, the longer it lasts — think white flour, white sugar, and standard pasta. Brown rice, whole-grain flour, and nuts can go rancid if stored improperly or for too long.
Handling and storage. Proper storage really enhances the longevity and quality of bulk foods. We primarily use restaurant-grade containers with tight-sealing lids, which we purchase from a restaurant supply store. They’re more expensive than generic plastic containers, but are far stronger and longer-lived. Tight lids are important, as pests, such as grain moths, can squeeze through small cracks and ruin a large batch of material.
Freezing bulk items temporarily can kill any eggs and larvae that might already be present. We also freeze items that might go rancid before a large batch is fully consumed, such as nuts, generally dividing up the bulk amount into smaller containers that can be retrieved one at a time to thaw.
Source bulk foods. In some areas, grocery or health food stores will make bulk orders for you of any item they can get in commercial quantities, usually for a discount. We order many generic items this way, such as sugar, salt, raisins, and pasta.
However, another benefit of bulk buying is the ability to purchase directly from good farmers or co-ops, which directs your spending to growers you approve of.
While we buy locally for appropriate products (such as fruits in season), we’re also happy to buy from good farmers in other parts of the country or world if they produce a special product that’s worth supporting. If you direct-order in bulk, be sure you have a good way to receive the large packages — no one wants a big bag of wheat berries left out in the rain!
Growing Bigger and Better Tromboncino Squash
Tromboncino is an Italian squash, light yellow-green, mild but tasty, and firmer than a zucchini. I read that if left on the vine, it could be harvested as a winter squash with a taste supposedly resembling butternut squash. I bought the seeds from a nursery on a whim, and planted them in pots along my chain-link fence in an open, unused area of the garden where the runners could crawl on the ground and, with any luck, climb the fence.
I’ve learned that this squash is a prolific monster — healthy as a horse — that tolerates squash borers and will root wherever it touches the ground. I haven’t noticed any bugs or diseases. This squash just spreads out, growing laterally and then vertically up the fence, over it, and even through it onto the neighbors’ property!
I recommend harvesting Tromboncino squash when they’re small, at 8 or 10 inches. If you’re not able to keep up with this harvest method, don’t worry too much. I keep finding gigantic squashes I’ve missed, which even at 2 feet long or more are still tender. Our extreme heat in San Diego doesn’t seem to have any impact on their growth rate. I just keep them watered and they keep growing.
El Cajon, California
Bottle and Jar Labels
Companies today try to put too much on their labels, using smaller and smaller font size. Tired of having to put on “cheater glasses” just to read every spice and medicine bottle, I started to keep a roll of painter’s or freezer tape and a permanent marker in my utensil drawer. That way, I can label any bottle or jar in big bold letters. They may not be pretty, but they save me a lot of time and aggravation, which is important on a homestead. This is especially handy on medicine bottles — you can write the dosage right on the label so you don’t have to find your glasses to see in the middle of the night.
Prattsburgh, New York
Pest Prevention Fence
My husband and I have a small urban farm that supplies food for us and a small group of community-supported agriculture (CSA) members. To keep costs down, we look for ways to creatively recycle in the garden. This past spring, we had a problem with squirrels and rabbits eating our Swiss chard, and cabbage loopers attacking the brassicas. Sprinkling crushed red pepper and trying other thrifty solutions failed. So we salvaged some old welded-wire fencing that we cut into sections and curved into hoops. We covered the hoops with tulle fabric donated by a friend, placed them over the affected garden beds, and secured the corners with large rocks dug from the ground. The hoops effectively kept out the garden pests until the plants grew large enough to harvest.
Kansas City, Missouri
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