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

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

Listen to this post! Audio is available from the Jo of the Woods Podcast.

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 Woodsand read all of Jo’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS postshere.

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