Always Getting Ready on the Homestead

Reader Contribution by Mary Lou Shaw
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“Always Getting Ready” is the title of a book I was given after working with the Yup’ik Eskimo people in Southwest Alaska. Their work and lives are depicted in wonderful black-and-white photographs where they are seen with such chores as drying herring, picking salmon-berries and skinning a seal. I am humbled by what it takes to wrest out a subsistence living on frozen tundra and you’d think that would keep me from drawing comparisons to my homesteading chores–but I’m going to make the comparison anyway!

Late autumn is a time that I look forward to when juggling too many tasks in the heat of summer. I run short of both time and energy in July and August when handling all the produce and milk as well as the young poultry and calves. Oh yes, I can imagine myself sitting by the wood stove in November reading a good book.

But then November comes and I learn anew that the projects don’t really end, they just change. I admit that a large family reunion at our home got me side-tracked for a couple autumn weeks during which garden projects were put off until later. “Putting the garden to bed” each autumn varies according to which philosophy I’m currently following: I agree that “bare ground is starving soil,” and I don’t want to lose top soil to wind and rain. However, dead crops can also harbor disease, and so we haul them to the compost pile. To cover the soil, we plant a few more cover crops each year that will grow enough to hold soil before their growth is arrested by the cold. When we were done harvesting some crops in late summer, we planted Johnny’s Seeds “manure mix, fall green.” In other places I put left-over kale and “plow-down” clover seeds as well as oats. I used whatever I had to hold the topsoil and nurture the soil’s microbes; I figured the green can also serve as mulch for vegetables next spring.

The garden also continues to feed us during the winter. There is lettuce under a row-cover, and lettuce row cover straw covering both carrots, which have been sweetened by frosts, and next year’s garlic. The rhubarb and asparagus are not evident now, but I trust them to be some of our earliest crops next springtime.

We had a good harvest from our orchard this year. We’re proud that the hazelnut bushes finally gave us some nuts, and the blackberries were generous from June until the first frost. The apple, peach and pear trees did well; we attribute that mainly to the holistic sprays and increased mulching they receive. This past week we gave them one last holistic spray for this year which consisted of microbes, need oil, soap and liquid fish. I now look forward to windless winter days where I truly enjoy pruning the apples trees.

I’ve read that the Ohio bee population is not expected to do well through this winter because the summer being both “wetter and cooler.” We’re sending each of our ten hives into winter with a super of honey in addition to what they have below in their hives. This week we will wrap felt-paper around each hive with hopes their clusters of bees can warm and expand on sunny winter days and therefore better reach their honey reserves. We don’t peek at bees during the winter, but if things go well, the queen will begin laying eggs in February so that there will be plenty of foragers in early spring.

Although these days can be cold, we butchered chickens last week and with friends’ help, butchered four Narragansett turkeys before Thanksgiving. The chickens that went into the freezer were the Dorking cockerels from “mamma hen’s” brood as well as the older hens that aren’t Dorkings. These Leghorns and Sumatra breeds came to us as “fillers” when ordering Dorkings from a hatchery, and when I choose white eggs for the incubator next spring, it’s the Dorking breed that I’m attempting to foster. Saving rare breeds does require butchering we’ve found, and this includes the Narragansett turkeys. What gives us any pleasure in this task is that the friends who help us butcher will also have a cherished heritage turkey on their tables this Thanksgiving.

If these routine autumn projects aren’t enough, my husband, Tom, uses this “slower” time to begin projects that won’t fit into summer’s faster pace. He has put a 2,500 gallon cistern under ground this past month which is connected to the roofs of the house, garage, shed and chicken house. The timing works well to capture our autumn and winter precipitation. Two, 250-gallon tanks that will gravity-feed water to the crops will be elevated above the garden “when there is time.”

To make best use of displaced soil from where the cistern is buried, Tom is building a long-dreamed-of smoke house. The dirt is used to elevate the floor of the block structure so the smoke can rise through it. He is able to place another tier or two of cement blocks whenever the nights aren’t below freezing. The books he reads by the wood burner are all about smoking food–of course!

Finally, this season is so good for having a bit more time to enjoy the animals. No flies mean the animals are more comfortable and therefore more enjoyable for us to be with. The horses and miniature donkeys get some grooming, the chickens, turkeys and Red Wattle hogs get a bit more talking to and treats and the Dutch Belted cows get more all-around spoiling. Mucking out the shelters and hauling water does make for more cold-season work, but even if we’re “always getting ready,” its fun to vary the work and the pleasures with the seasons.

Mary Lou Shaw homesteads by Washington Courthouse, Ohio and is the author of “Growing Local Food,” available on Mother Earth News.

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