Helen and Scott Nearing Answer Homesteading Questions

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Photo by MOTHER EARTH NEWS staff
Helen and Scott Nearing answer reader's homesteading questions. Scott meets a visitor.

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

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

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

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

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

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.