Rural Living: Working with the Land

John Stuart and Carol Mack have spent 25 years homesteading on 40 acres in the woods of northeast Washington. Here's what worked, what didn’t and why the family wouldn’t trade their rural living experiences for anything.

| August/September 2001

My wife Carol and I alighted on our homestead, a rocky bit of Northwestern forest, 25 years ago. We had a mix of experiences with botany, gardening and farm work, but this landscape was new to us. The land we chose reflected our mixed bag of assumptions, experience and naivete. We wanted to be where we could soak up the plant and animal life of the forest — call it the wild urge. But we also wanted to have a garden and fruit trees — call it the domestic urge. Our upland site, which is rolling and rocky, was well-chosen for its few good gardening spots, but it excluded other possibilities. Proximity to market and town were sacrificed for seclusion and wildness. Pasture and open space were sacrificed to forest living.

Small is Beautiful

One of the most important lessons we learned early on was that, with only 24 hours in a day, we needed to consider carefully where we wanted to concentrate our work. Because our whole reason for being here was to be out in the open air, we determined that we did not want to be a slave to our buildings. All buildings take constant maintenance. So building a small log house and then only putting up out-buildings that were absolutely necessary was a big Lesson No. 1.

Big Plans that Bore Little Fruit

Another lesson, learned the hard way, was about the mixture of attributes that contributes to soil fertility. We test planted three different sites the first summer to determine the best garden spot, and that experiment worked well. The site mat worked the best has supplied abundant food for our family for 25 years. Wanting to keep the fruit trees separate, however, we could only find one decent area that was excellent for its slight north slope. We knew this would delay flowering in the spring, a crucial helpful point in our area. But we were not able to pipe as much water as the trees needed and the soil was just too sandy and rocky for good nutrition and water-holding capacity.

After 20 years of minimal fruit crops, we swallowed hard, rolled up the wire fence and let the deer and bears re-inhabit that acre. We were not about to do without fruit trees, however. Our garden now includes about 20 trees, some rescued from the old site.

Microclimates: The Luck of the Draw, or Ridge?

In searching for land, have you ever heard a real estate agent mention microclimates? Not likely. We were mostly unaware of such a concept when we found our land, but we lucked out and are blessed with about as good a growing season as can be found in our area.

However, we have recorded as much as 25 degrees difference in the winter between our upland site and the closest creek bottom site two miles away. A neighbor in this low spot attempted a garden and found that it could freeze any month of the year.

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