For over 35 years, Mother Earth News has been teaching readers the basics of homesteading and how to be self-reliant. Whether you dream of creating an urban or suburban homestead, or a rural farmstead, these practical skills, tools and home business ideas will help you move 'forward to the land.'
Americans are the epitome of self-sufficiency and self-reliance. From the country's beginning in the 1600s, American settlers, pioneers, homesteaders, back-to-the-landers and farmers have relied on their ingenuity and creativity to live well on less, engaging their rural communities in the process.
Homesteading may be an old-fashioned word, but the concepts of self-sufficient living; building a home (not just a house); and developing a home business are as appealing today as they were in the Homesteading days of the late 1800s. We, as a people, have always been inspired by the Laura Ingalls Wilder family, Daniel Boone, Henry David Thoreau, Joseph Smith, Helen and Scott Nearing, Carla Emery and Eliot Coleman. Through their writings on self-sufficiency and how to do things yourself, they have inspired thousands of people to give the notion of homesteading, rural living or farm life a try. They have shared with us their successes and failures and the joys and sorrows of the adventure. Their reports on building barns and outbuildings, tool usage and starting a home business are the modern homesteading Bibles. We admire and envy their ability to be self-sufficient.
In the late 1960s and early 70s, countless Americans in search
of a hands-on, homemade life headed off the beaten track to find
land of their own. In some areas these back-to-the-landers
attempted to resuscitate rural communities and local economies with
new approaches to agriculture and the revival of artisan crafts and
In 1975, Jim Schley moved from Wisconsin to rural New England to attend college. In the long Connecticut River Valley that forms the border between New Hampshire and Vermont, he found a place to sink his own roots: a gorgeous, water-lush land of conifer forests, dramatically distinct seasons, and strong traditions of subsistence farming and logging.
During this time, Jim met scores of people who had built their own houses and who grew most of their own food. Some had dowsed and then dug their own wells. Many had milled lumber for their homes from trees that were hauled out of the forests by horses. And some produced their household electricity with small hydro-turbines, wind spinners or solar photovoltaic (PV) systems. Even though many of these folks were former suburbanites, their energetic creativity meshed well with the longtime regional traditions of homesteading: seasonal cycles of work; hunting and foraging; cutting wood in the winter; sugaring in the spring; and growing and preserving fruit and vegetables.
When Sue and Eliot Coleman sit down to eat in their tiny one-room house, they use tree stumps instead of chairs. When they need drinking water, Sue walks a quarter of a mile through the woods to a freshwater brook and hauls back two big containers hanging from a yoke over her shoulders. And when the Colemans want to read at night, they light kerosene lanterns.
The young couple — Sue is 26, Eliot 31— aren't the forgotten victims of rural poverty or some natural disaster. They live as they do out of choice. They have deliberately given up such luxuries as indoor plumbing, store-bought furniture and everything that electricity makes possible. They have no telephone, no automatic mixer, no TV set.
With their two-year-old daughter, Melissa, Sue and Eliot are trying to escape America's consumer economy and live in the wilderness much as the country's pioneers did. They grow about 80% of their own food and spend only about $2,000 a year on things they can't make themselves.
The Colemans have been living this way two and a half years and they're proud of their accomplishment. 'If you listen to Madison Avenue, we don't exist,' says Eliot. 'They say it's impossible to live on $2,000.'
The Colemans are among a tiny but apparently growing number of young couples, often from middle-class families, who are taking up the pioneering life, or 'homesteading' as it's often called — though today's pioneers usually can't get free land from the government as early homesteaders did. Favorite homesteading areas are New England, the Pacific Northwest, the Ozarks and Canada. Sue and Eliot have 40 acres of thick forest 30 miles south of a small town near the central Maine coast.
The Colemans say they personally know about a dozen couples who are taking up homesteading. A neighbor of the Colemans, Helen Nearing, 67, who with her husband, Scott, now 87, retreated to a homestead in Vermont in the early 1930s and later moved to Maine, says 'a lot of people, more than 100, are getting land and living off of it.'
Finding the right place to homestead, farm or develop a self-sustaining life usually begins with finding the right property; only you know what is the best place for your family. Whether it's an acreage hidden in the hills or a townhouse in the middle of a bustling city center, most of us are searching for a special place we can call home.
The following advice is based on 24 house-buying and property-purchasing escapades.
We devote immeasurable hours imagining what we want, but may not know exactly how to find it and buy it. When a perfect Craftsman bungalow or spring-fed five acres finally does appear, we need all the advice we can get about how to make the wisest possible purchase. After all, buying a house or land is certainly one of the biggest single expenditures most of us will ever make. And once you've bought it, there are no refunds or exchanges. It only makes sense to be cautious and know as much as possible before you buy.
First, forget the Joneses and hone in on what you want — and what you can afford. Be realistic and you won't be disappointed. Examine your budget and figure out exactly how much money you can comfortably invest. Most people borrow money to buy a house, and most loan agencies will require you to pay at least 5 percent down in cash. They usually will loan you an amount that results in monthly payments between 27 percent and 33 percent of your net income, depending on your debt-to-income ratio, which they will help you determine. If you expect to apply for a loan, now is the time to amend a poor credit rating or establish your credit history. These factors determine how much interest you'll pay and what kind of down payment the bank will require. And don't forget to consider closing costs, inspections and miscellaneous expenses, which usually add at least a couple thousand dollars payable at closing.
If you're planning to buy undeveloped land, you should expect to pay at least 20 percent to 50 percent down in cash. Interest rates for a loan on the remaining 50 percent to 80 percent probably will be higher than for home loans.
When you're ready to buy, shop around to get the best bank loan terms you can. Credit unions may offer competitive rates and usually are easy to join. Mortgage companies have become aggressive, creative marketers for loans.
Check with your lending agency about obtaining pre-approval for a mortgage loan, so you're confident of what you can afford.
A lot of people fantasize about paying cash for a home. True, you can't beat the security of knowing that you own your place, free and clear. However, keep in mind that the interest you pay on your home is fully tax-deductible. You may be better off, financially, investing your bankroll and mortgaging the house.
Most of us buy as much house as we can afford. For that reason, we often end up with a 30-year mortgage on 95 percent of the home's value. But an unexpected change in your ability to make loan payments could put you in dire straits if you've borrowed as much as you can afford. Even in active markets, homes may take months — or even years — to sell. When you can't make the mortgage payment, those months move agonizingly slow.
You may want to choose a less expensive home, and put down a higher percentage of the home's value up front. This lets you avoid mortgage insurance, a big hidden expense that is often required on mortgages above a certain percentage of the home's value. And it offers no benefits to the buyer — it only protects the bank! If your credit is good, your banker may be willing to supplement your mortgage with a home-equity loan (essentially a second mortgage), thereby avoiding the cost of mortgage insurance.
Deed: A written instrument by which title to land is conveyed. If there is a mortgage on the house, the mortgage company holds the deed until the final payment. Then the owner receives the deed.
Earnest money: A deposit made by the buyer as evidence of good faith when offering to purchase real estate. Earnest money is typically held in an escrow account during the period between acceptance of the contract and the closing of the sale, at which time it is credited to the buyer.
Easement: A right to use another person's real estate for a specific purpose. The most common type of easement is the right to travel over another person's land, known as a right-of-way. In addition, property owners commonly grant easements for the placement of utility poles, utility trenches, water lines or sewer lines.
Land contract: A contract where the buyer makes payments directly to the seller, who is still financially responsible for the property. Beware: If the seller defaults on his mortgage, you could lose your property.
Title insurance: Protection for lenders or homeowners, provided by a title company, against financial loss resulting from legal defects in the title, which is a history of the ownership of the property.
An added benefit to home-equity loans: If you're buying an expensive home worth more than, say, $300,000, you may be stuck paying higher 'jumbo' interest rates. A home-equity loan could bring your mortgage balance below the limit, and secure a cheaper rate. And the interest you pay on home-equity loans is generally tax-deductible — just like your mortgage.
If you expect your income to drop within the next 15 years, you might prefer a higher monthly payment now and a paid-off home in 15 years. If you think you will retire in that period, your income may decrease to a level where the mortgage-tax deduction isn't that beneficial. Many banks offer 15-year mortgages at rates preferable to those on 30-year mortgages.
Remember, though, if you are going to have debt of any kind — car loans, revolving credit, whatever — you probably want to secure it with your home. You'll generally pay less interest, and the interest will be deductible.
Or if you decide not to be tied to a loan, read Rob Roy's book, Mortgage Free, which offers sound steps to financial freedom. To order, see MOTHER'S Bookshelf.
A lot of us idealize the 'handshake deal' between two trusting, like-minded individuals. Nothing can spoil that vision quicker than a property-boundary dispute or toxic runoff from the neighbor's manure containment. Many real estate deals self-destruct before the papers are signed, just because communication breaks down during negotiations.
If you're a seller, you may want to hire a lawyer and put together your own transaction with a buyer. It can be a lot cheaper.
But if you're a buyer, there's not much logic in avoiding the real estate specialists. In fact, with the way the business works these days, you should probably start your search for a home with a trusted 'buyer's representative' who is a licensed real estate agent. Their fee will likely come from the commission paid by the seller.
Here's what an agent can do for you:
Access the multiple-listing service in your area to give you the widest possible choice of properties. Share expertise regarding valuations and locations, schools, amenities and other important information. Share experience of other deals, and help you make the right moves in negotiations. Negotiate directly with other real estate agents, who probably have a lot more experience than you do.
One important no-no: If you find a house and don't already have an agent, do not let the seller's agent select a buyer's representative for you. Interview some real estate agents and choose your own, based on your personal rapport.
Know your budget and stick to it. Even if you've pre-qualified for a certain amount, you don't have to shop for a house or property that meets the loan's maximum. It's better to be conservative.
List your 'needs and wants,' such as square-footage requirements, lot size and proximity to work. Your budget largely will determine your choices; prioritize your list and be prepared to make some concessions.
Check weekly for new listings. Most real estate firms have Web sites and are multi-listed, enabling you to search all available home and land listings in a particular area. Read the local newspaper for new listings and open houses. The more you study the market, the better idea you'll have about what's a 'fair price.' Don't depend solely on your agent.
Get the listing sheets for any houses you are interested in, and check each listing against your 'needs and wants' list. Besides giving you the property's pertinent information, such as lot dimensions, room sizes and the age of the house, the listing sheet also may tell you how long the property has been on the market, which may give you some bargaining leverage.
Get the seller's disclosure sheet for each property you visit. In many localities, a seller must fill out a multi-paged disclosure sheet, assessing the house from foundation to roof. If a disclosure sheet is not required by law, ask the sellers to complete one anyway. Although not as reliable as an independent inspection, seller's disclosure sheets are very useful tools for determining any current deficiencies known to the owners. If you purchase the house and then discover a defect that the seller should have acknowledged on the disclosure sheet, have your real estate agent address the issue.
Make an appointment to view the property. Take a friend along to help you make an objective examination and spot any existing or potential problems.
Take notes. Viewing prospective properties is both energizing and exhausting. You may think you'll remember every unique feature of each property, but after viewing even a few, most people can't keep track of all the pros and cons unless they take notes. Take the listing sheet and disclosure form with you to each property and jot down your observations directly on the listing sheet.
Make sure to view the properties during the day, when you can thoroughly inspect property boundaries, the house exterior, etc. When you're perusing a property, also request that the owner not be present. It's much easier to poke in closets and cupboards and ask questions of the real estate agent without the home owner on site. A house may look great with fresh paint and new carpet, but any potential long-term problems will be hard to detect. Check out closets and cupboards, under the sink, behind the furnace, in crawl spaces and attics. Flush the toilets and run the faucets. Open the windows. Look for leaks and cracks.
Most importantly, ask lots of questions. You need to learn as much as you can before you make an offer. For major concerns, get the answers in writing. If it's a property on which you want to make an offer, don't hesitate to visit it several times. Besides inspecting and reinspecting the property, spend some time walking and driving around the neighborhood and chatting with neighbors. Visit at various hours of the day and during different days of the week. Investigate the zoning around the property, especially if it sits near undeveloped land. That sweet wildflower meadow that lies behind your dream house may be slated to house an industrial hog farm.
Buying a house involves more than just offering a certain price and having it accepted. Only part of the offer is about the price. The rest of it relates to inspections, repairs, and what is or is not included with the purchase of the house. When you're ready to make an offer, you should have a real estate agent representing only your interests (a 'buyer's representative'). If you're negotiating a private transaction, consider retaining an attorney. Remember: Buying a house is the largest single investment most of us ever make. Better safe than sorry.
If you find what you think is your perfect property, beware of becoming too enamored with it. Be ready to walk away from a deal that doesn't meet your needs. Remember that you're in control: Set the terms the way you want them.
Before your agent writes up your offer (your realtor will provide the appropriate paperwork), ask for copies of any prior house-inspection reports that were done. If none have been done, we strongly recommend that you make your offer contingent on a whole-house inspection: At $150 to $500, it is well worth the investment. An independent contractor will inspect the house and provide you with a written, detailed report on the house's structure, roof, wiring, plumbing, foundation and windows. Consider including a clause in your offer stipulating that the seller must pay for any necessary repairs exceeding a certain amount. Even if no major problems are discovered, you'll learn a great deal about the home when you review the report with the inspector.
Not everything is covered in most 'whole-house' inspections.
Other specific inspections, such as termite, chimney, well or
septic, should be negotiated with the seller, and should be
stipulated in your offer to purchase.
If you've decided that you want to plant your roots in a rural area, you'll need to consider these additional issues.
Water. How is the property supplied with water? If there's a well, make your offer contingent on inspections to confirm the well is in good condition. You may want to specify that the well provide a certain number of gallons per minute. Have the water tested for nitrates, bacteria and any other possible contaminants that may endanger your health. (Ask the health department what problems may be present in the local water supply.)
If there is not a water source on the property, be sure to take that into account when you decide how much you're willing to offer. If you plan to drill a well, realize there is always a chance the driller will not be able to locate water on the property. You may be able to get some idea in advance of the odds you'll find good water by checking with hydrologists at the agency that regulates water use in your state.
Sewage. Most country properties use a septic system to process graywater and sewage from sinks, showers and toilets. The homeowner's disclosure may indicate the septic system has worked well in the past, but you should still request an inspection as part of the purchase offer agreement. If you're buying land, the seller should have conducted a preliminary 'perc' test to determine if the soil and site are suitable for a conventional septic system. Check local rules; be sure you know what will be required before you make a purchase offer.
Electricity. Today, the utility grid supplies most rural homes with power. If there's currently no electric service to the property and you want to tap into grid power, you'll need the electric company to give you a bid on bringing in lines. If a pole is already on the property, only a line has to be dropped to the buildings and a meter installed, a relatively inexpensive procedure. If there's no pole adjacent to the property, the cost easily may run into thousands of dollars, depending on how far the line must be run from the nearest pole. Investigate installing underground lines, which may be more attractive and dependable — and sometimes not much more costly.
Producing your own energy using solar or wind generation may be your best bet, but be sure to research any zoning regulations that might limit their use. (Putting in a photovoltaic system usually is not limited by zoning rules, but putting up a 100-foot wind tower may be.)
Water and mineral rights. It's not uncommon for a property to have mineral or water rights attached to the deed. The title should list these rights, and you should have the title company or your attorney explain the ramifications and limitations these rights can impose on the property — before you make an offer.
Zoning. Zoning ordinances and building permits vary from state to state, county to county and even between municipalities. If you have a certain project in mind for your property, check with the local building inspector to see if it can be permitted. Zoning ordinances designate land for certain functions, such as farming, industry or housing, and can limit how your land can be used. Local building codes govern how you can build. Some locales may permit unique projects under an 'experimental' clause, but this can be costly, especially if an engineer is required to review your plans. If you intend to use green building techniques or want to have a Dr. Doolittle farm with lots of animals, investigate potential zoning or building permit limitations.
Rights-of-way. Roads, power lines and gas lines frequently cross parcels of land and may interfere with your plans for the property. If a neighboring property has no road frontage, it may have a permanent, deeded easement through the property you are considering. Or if you have to drive on a private road to reach the property you are considering, make sure that you retain this permanent easement on the title. If there is a road on the property that you can't account for and no mention of an easement on the deed or title, ask the current owner if an easement agreement exists with any neighbors.
Survey. In most cases you should know the exact boundaries of the lot or acreage you are considering. If survey markers are not in place, request a survey be done.
There's an old Spanish proverb which holds that, 'The best revenge is to live well.' And if that's true, then Helen and Scott Nearing, (without ever having been vengeful at all) have had — and still have — the very best revenge of all.
Because the Nearings have lived quite well indeed in all the ways that really matter. And they have done it entirely on their own terms and at their own pace. And they have done it far longer (Helen is 74 and Scott is 93) than most of their detractors ever have or ever will.
Helen and Scott Nearing have been living today's counterculture for better than a generation. Almost four decades ago (in 1932), the couple 'dropped out' to a rock-scrabble mountain farm in Vermont's Green Mountains where they spent the next 20 years rebuilding the soil, constructing solid homestead buildings from native stone, growing their own food, heating with wood they cut by hand, and co-authoring numerous books and magazine articles. Tick off any of the present's most 'in' passions — women's lib, equal rights, organic gardening, vegetarianism, radicalism, homesteading, subsistence farming, ecology — and you'll find that the Nearings have been doing instead of talking for 40 years.
In 1952, when 'developers' began despoiling the slopes around
them for a ski resort, the Nearings sold their Vermont farm, moved
to a remote Maine cape and began all over again ... clearing brush,
building honest stone structures, planting vigorous gardens, and —
in general — making their place in the world on a soul-satisfying,
For years I had talked with my parents and my sister about all of us buying land in the country, building houses, growing gardens, hunting and fishing, and being able to help each other. Now, as I stood watching my father drive away, bloody bird in hand, I realized I was living my dream — the good, the bad and the ugly.
I'll never forget the day my dad and brother-in-law walked into my office with serious faces, closed the door as if there was a problem to discuss and sat down in the chairs opposite my desk. We all worked together in a building-supply business in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
'Put up or shut up,' they said. And, as both men grinned at me, it began to sink in that this was good news.'We've found the perfect piece of property, only 30 minutes from the office,' they told me. 'Fifty acres of fenced pastures stocked ponds, a nice house, two barns and two beautiful homesites.'
It was an easy decision. The property was so perfect that we could hardly wait to move. Within a matter of days the purchase agreements were signed, and moving plans began to take shape. My parents would move into the existing house, and my sister and I would each build a new house on the property.
My husband, Ricky, and I sold our house quickly and bought a trailer to live in while building our new home. After settling into the trailer, we began buying old building materials with the goal of building a new house that truly looked old.
It took us two years to finally move into our new home, which is about 2,800 square feet in size and constructed of many recycled materials. We used antique pine and cypress lumber, oak flooring, antique light fixtures and claw-foot tubs — anything we could get our hands on from old buildings that had been torn down. We love being able to reuse things instead of throwing them away, but we also just love old houses. The wood in our house isn't flimsy or full of formaldehyde; we wanted those big, thick pieces.
The hardest part is knowing what you want. Once you know what you want, everything else falls into place.
Alice Dobbs and David Schafer lived in Denver. It was pretty much your standard-issue 1970s American life. They were both working for Trans Globe Tours, a natural choice considering their backgrounds. Alice had spent most of her childhood in South America. David had attended high school in the Philippines and Puerto Rico.
It was a good life.
Then a charter company based in Chicago bought Trans Globe Tours. Alice and David knew they didn't want to move to Chicago. But what did they want? They had a good life, but was there a great life waiting for them somewhere?
'Well, you know you can always manage Grandma and Grandpa's farm,' David's father offered over the phone one day. 'Oh right!' David responded. 'Us, farmers.'
But the idea didn't fade away. Alice and David found themselves caught between conflicting viewpoints. In one corner was the belief that farming is hard, physical and repetitive with little reward or gratitude from the larger society that feeds off the farmers' work. But another perspective kept insisting its questions be answered: If it was so awful, why did farming call to them? Alice and David knew they tended to romanticize farm life. But what could be better for two independent, nature-loving people than answering to no one but themselves and working outdoors with animals? How important is money compared to freedom from the burdens of its pursuit?
The battle lines were drawn. City friends pushed for romanticism. Country friends politely told them they were idealistic fools. Ultimately, romanticism won.
The first time I found an egg in the henhouse, I almost crowed. You'd think I had laid that first egg myself. I just never realized how much pleasure one could get from something as simple as raising chickens. I guess people could say, 'Simple joys for simple minds.' But people say a lot of things. In my homesteading adventure I've learned simplicity is the seed of joy, and finding your own lifestyle is the root of peace. .
My husband and I have been homesteading for about 10 years in various locations. We seem to be compelled by circumstances to move every two years or so. This has given me ample opportunity to perfect my carpentry skills: Just as I finish building rabbit hutches, chicken coops and woodsheds, I have to start again at a new location. I've also established my share of vegetable and perennial flower gardens. At times, I feel like the Johnny Appleseed of echinacea. Because of my parents' health, Bill and I recently sold our homestead and are starting afresh near them in the very northernmost of northern New York. I don't worry, though. We have establishing a homestead down pat.
That's not to say that homesteading is easy, but things worth
doing rarely are. The work can indeed be never-ending, but so can
'modern' work. I spent years caught in the monotony of office work
and am certain I prefer the repetition of homestead chores to the
drudgery I experienced 'at work.' There, I brought home a paycheck.
Here, the rewards are so much greater: feeling a wonderful sense of
accomplishment, bringing my own food to my own table, being my own
boss and setting my own priorities and work schedule.
From Shaker rounds to ricks, how to stack fuelwood for maximum seasoning.
In my part of upper New England, winters are long and cold; security is a big stack of well-seasoned firewood. The urge to 'get the wood in' runs deep. It's an itch that kicks up when the leaves begin turning in mid-August and that won't stay scratched until the snow season's fuel supply is split, stacked, and ready to hand.
There is an art and a science to building a woodpile. Some say there's a spiritual side to it as well, but I can't help you much with that. You'd have to come to meeting already knowing that there's something more to a tree than wood, bark and leaves as the Indians and the old-time French-Canadian axemen did, and the way a few modern woodsmen and women still do.
Firewood just dumped in a heap won't dry and it won't burn well.
Rain will run down and soak into cut ends while ground moisture
will migrate up and soak into spongy inner bark. But even the
toughest ash and beech fire logs will start quickly and burn
efficiently (with little creosote-making smoke) if seasoned in the
woods for 6 months to a year, sectioned to stove length, the big
logs half-split, and all of it piled in the woodshed or barn for
some months more. The hardwood should be quartered; the pine should
be split to kindling and piled again to surface-dry in a warm
cellar for a few weeks or months and finally brought upstairs to
heat and dry crisp for a day or two near the stove. Henry Thoreau
neglected the work of piling and repiling when he wrote, 'Wood
warms you twice ... once when you cut it and again when you burn
it.' By my count it warms you six or seven times — most of that in
building and tearing down woodpiles.
The golden glow and cozy warmth of a wood fire have drawn family
and friends to the hearth. A woodstove truly does help transform a
house into a home. But here in the super-high-tech 21st century,
does a return to our heritage heating fuel make sense for your
It's a renewable energy resource.
Wood is energy from the sun, stored by the tree as it grows. When you burn wood you are releasing this stored energy. In the dark of winter, it's like having a bit of summer sun on your hearth.
It's an Earth-friendly choice.
When fuels burn they release carbon dioxide, one of the greenhouse gases responsible for global warming. Trees absorb carbon dioxide as they grow, so when you heat with wood, the carbon dioxide is released, then absorbed again by young trees. Because trees recycle carbon dioxide, wood burning just warms you, not the globe.
You're in charge.
Stop writing checks every month to the energy utilities. Do you really want to leave something as important as staying warm in the hands of a faceless corporation?
No more freezing in the dark.
When a storm interrupts the electrical supply, all the conventional heating systems are useless, but the woodstove keeps you warm and cozy and safe. Now a power failure isn't so much of a drag: You get to use the candles.
Wood warms you like no other.
The radiant heat from a stove or fireplace is like the rays of the sun. It warms you through and through.
The romance of the flame.
The soft glow of firelight is the favorite setting for an intimate conversation. It's the place where friends and family gather to talk and laugh in comfort.
Raise your energy I.Q.
Each log you place on the fire is a visual reminder of the environmental impact of keeping your family warm. It's the wood heat way of knowing.
Heat a space, save some energy.
That stove or fireplace in the living room keeps you warm and cozy in the place you spend your time. The basement and bedrooms stay cool. Regardless of what you pay for energy, space heating with wood clips 25 percent right off the top.
Invest in your community.
Spend a buck on oil, natural gas or electricity and you feed a corporate giant. Spend a buck on firewood and you feed a neighbor.
Wood is the cheapest heating fuel you can use if you don't live in a large city. Some people actually think the only reason we heat with wood is to save money. Poor souls, they miss so much of what is good in life.
Whether you decide to make wood your primary heating fuel or just want to spend winter evenings around a warm, flickering fire, you'll need to choose from a bewildering array of options: elegant enameled woodstoves, high-efficiency fireplaces, furnaces or even cookstoves. Here's what you need to help you make the right choice, including a comprehensive list of stove models, sizes, prices and other details.
The benefits of home heating with wood are numerous: comfort, beauty, independence, security and environmental responsibility. Surely the most discussed advantage is the promise of cost savings compared with the mainstream alternatives. Although there are many variables involved, you can almost certainly save money by heating with wood if there are forests in your region and you don't live in a city. If the recent volatility of oil, gas and electricity prices provides a hint of the future, the savings could increase in the years ahead. As long as you enjoy managing the firewood supply and the fire, you will be a successful full-time wood burner.
Visit John Gulland's woodheat Web site: www.woodheat.org
But one day, bolstered by the surprising amount of heat dispensed by our stove, we tentatively approached it with tea kettle in hand. Once we were successful (with a little patience), we quickly graduated to soups and stews. Though ours doesn't have the versatility of a wood cookstove designed for kitchen duty, it does have some workable similarities.
The surface of our woodstove isn't usually hot enough for frying foods but it is perfect for simmering and slow cooking. We've even managed to use our 'oven' (firebox) in much the same way as we use our charcoal grill in the summertime.
The hot coals will cook foil-wrapped vegetables or individual packets of meat. For baked potatoes, wrap them in heavy duty foil and place in the hot ashes of the fire. These will take from 45 minutes to one hour to cook.
Corn can be cooked in foil, too. Strip husks down to the end of the ear but don't tear off. Remove silk, butter generously, and bring husks up around corn, making sure all the kernels are covered. Wrap in double thickness of heavy-duty foil, twist ends, and nestle in hot ashes.
Sliced zucchini can be seasoned with oregano and mixed with chopped tomato and butter. Double wrap and cook in ashes. Small beets can be cooked directly on the hot coals: Just sprinkle them with water, dot with chunks of butter, and double wrap in heavy-duty foil.
For grilled chicken, marinate 2-inch pieces of chicken breast in
soy sauce, some powdered ginger, a little sugar and garlic powder
to taste for two hours. Place a few pieces and some marinade in a
double wrapping of heavy-duty foil. Repeat until all the chicken is
wrapped tightly, then place the packets on the coals until
Individual meals, such as the Hobo Dinner, can be cooked in pound-size coffee cans nestled in hot coals. Shape one-half pound of ground beef into a large patty the size of the bottom of the coffee can. Top with sliced onions, a sliced potato, and one-half ear of corn; sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cover can tightly with double-wrapped aluminum foil. Nestle can among hot coals, but do not set directly on top of them. This will take at least an hour to cook.
There is no way to gauge the heat of the fire, so you cannot
time the cooking process. Use a two-pronged fork to check the
tenderness of the vegetables (we like ours with just a little
There are various woodstove baking ovens on the market for cooking small baked goods, but an inverted cast iron pot has worked well for us. I place the cover of the pot upside down on the stove, put a bread pan or small muffin pan on top of that, and then top the cover and pan with inverted cooking pot.
Granted, this is a crude contraption and it does seem to take
forever sometimes for the baked goods to be done, but it works — it
just takes longer than a conventional oven.
Traditional cast-iron cookware is by far the most effective utensil for woodstove use. Cast iron provides even heat and needs little care. Each piece should be treated to stave off rust and to prevent foods from sticking. To accomplish this, coat the pan with vegetable oil and heat for two hours in a 300-degree oven. Check periodically to see if the oil has been absorbed and add more if necessary. Let cool and wipe off any excess. After you've finished cooking, clean the pot with paper towels and scour stubborn spots with salt (avoid cleaning with soap or detergents).
Cooking techniques vary little whether the fuel is wood or coal: The difference is in the higher intensity of heat from the burning of coal. With either fuel, the heat is often not evenly distributed on the stove's surface.
The real trick is to move the pots around, depending upon your needs. If a pot is bubbling too hard, either move it to a cooler area on the woodstove or set it on a metal trivet. If more heat is required, set the pan directly over the area where the coals are burning hottest, which is usually in the center of the stovetop.
As confidence in your ability to cook on a woodstove grows, so will your assurance that almost anything can be cooked on a woodstove. Your imagination is your greatest tool, and your cooking methods are uniquely your own.
Hand-pushed reel mowers offer multiple advantages over gas-powered mowers: no noise, no noxious air pollution, no danger of flying rocks, low maintenance and no worries about getting them started. Plus you get a great aerobic workout every time you use them, burning about 300 calories an hour.
The secret to easy cutting with these mowers is frequent mowing. If you let the grass get too long, the reel mower blades will tend to bind up or take an inordinate amount of pushing to get the mower through long grass. Cut when the grass is no more than an inch longer than you want it. A quarter acre (100 feet by 160 feet) of lawn can be cut in about an hour with a reel mower. For areas larger than that, you may want to go to a walk-behind, gas-powered cutter, either push or self-propelled.
American Lawn Mower Co.
You can buy corded electric mowers that run directly off of your home's electricity, but keeping the cord out of the way as you mow is a challenge on all but the smallest lawns. On the other hand, cordless electric mowers offer the same advantages of reel mowers: less noise, pollution and maintenance than gas-powered machines, easy starting, plus a good workout. They are an especially green choice if you live where electricity comes from hydroelectric dams — rather than coal or nuclear power plants — or if you enjoy free electricity from your own home solar-electric system or wind generator.
Cordless electric mowers include batteries that have to be plugged into an outlet after each use to recharge. They generally are not self-propelled and tend to be heavy because of their batteries. If a small person will be using the mower, test drive it at the dealers.
Even greener than a cordless electric mower is the new
mower. The Sunwhisper features two Siemens photovoltaic (PV) solar
panels that charge a Black & Decker 24-volt, CMMI000 cordless
electric mower. You can either mount the PV panels on your garage
or shed roof, or mount them right on the handles of the mower. As
long as the panels are facing south in full sun, they will keep the
mower's battery charged for about two hours of mowing per week. If
you need an overnight or cloudy-day charge, you still have the
option to recharge by plugging into a home outlet.
You might ask why you'd want an engine-powered mower you have to push rather than one that's self-propelled. There are three reasons. First, the push mowers cost less. Second, while self-propelled mowers are fine on large lawns without many obstacles, the mower you push can be more easily guided through tight spaces, around trees and shrubs, and around island beds. Plus its forward or backward speed is your walking speed. Third, all but the most serious full-time homesteaders will benefit from a weekly aerobic workout behind a push mower.
Most mowers of this type have four- to six-horsepower engines.
Avoid any that are underpowered, as they can stall in high grass
and won't make as clean a swath. Look for engines with
clean-burning, overhead valves, rather than side-valve engines.
Make sure the mowing platform can be adjusted up to 4 inches off
the ground. Weeds are suppressed and lawns are healthier when the
grass is longer. Short-cropped grass exposes roots, and low mowers
can hit rocks or scalp the soil over rough spots.
Self-propelled, gas-engine mowers reduce some of the physical work of mowing but cost somewhat more than push versions. If you decide to buy a self-propelled model, be aware of several factors that can affect their performance.
First, if you are planning to leave your clippings on the lawn, look for a mulching deck. This is simply a series of baffles and blades fixed to the underside of the housing that covers the rotating blade. When grass is cut, the baffles recirculate the grass clippings until they are reduced to fine mulch, which disappears quickly.
Many self-propelled mowers have safety features, such as a blade-brake-clutch. For the blade to operate, you have to hold a lever down as part of the handle. When you pause the unit or release the clutch lever, the blade stops automatically.
Some mowers offer a drive system that adjusts to your walking
Big lawns require significant mowing time. Riding mowers have the great advantage of giving you a place to sit down while you spend that time. They are lighter and smaller than heavy-duty lawn and garden tractors, without the latter's features, such as power take-offs for snowblowing and tillage, and blades for grading. In effect, they are lawn mowers with seats.
The White LT1650 is Consumer Reports' Best Buy riding mower.
Features to look for include a short turning radius, which can run from zero up to 26 inches. A turning radius is measured by steering the mower into the tightest circle it can make. The radius of that circle is the turning radius. A zero turning radius means you can stop the mower, turn the wheels and zip off in any new direction you choose. A short turning radius is handy for lawns with lots of obstacles, trees and flowerbeds.
Many riding mowers come with mulching decks, a good idea if you
want to recycle your clippings back onto the lawn. The mulching
deck will chop the clippings finely, so they disappear into the
lawn. Make sure the riding mower has a powerful engine of at least
eight horsepower, so it can lug you around the yard as well as cut
For rough work — such as giving a meadow, orchard or wet spot a once-a-year mowing — there are plenty of brawny-bladed trimmers, high wheel mowers and brush cutters on the market.
Bladed trimmers are handhelds similar to string trimmers, but are sturdier. They usually have two handlebars, gas rn with one or two horsepower and metal blades that hack through brushy stems.
High wheel mowers and brush cutters come with plastic string or
blades. String trimmers work well on light, juicy weeds and grass,
but for getting through small shrubs and saplings, you'll probably
want a bladed mower.
Many homesteads need more power equipment than just a mower.
Rather than buy a mower, tiller and snowblower, all with their own
motors, gears and wheels, you might want to consider a machine that
can run several attachments from the same engine. For example, the
Italian BCS tiller is a quality machine offered by mail from
Valley Farm Supply (888) 784-1722. You can remove the tiller
and attach a mower, brush cutter or snowblower to this machine. The
DR Field and Brush Mower offers similar flexibility and efficiency.
You can buy the brush mower, then add a lawn mower or snow thrower.
The BCS tillers start at $1,100 and the DR starts at $1,600. If you
have a need for multiple power equipment functions, why not talk to
some of your neighbors and see if you can form a co-op to purchase
and share this kind of machinery?
The scythe is simply the most efficient and graceful tool for mowing. It cuts heavy weeds and tall grass with ease, and with practice can be precise enough to cut and trim your lawn. It will silently outcut your string trimmer and venture where a push or gas lawn mower becomes useless. The scythe does all this with little physical effort, noise or pollution.
There are two styles of scythes, the European and the American. The European scythe blade is made light, thin and strong without excess material.Its strength comes from the curves and tension of the skinlike structure. This design has been refined through the centuries to be efficient and minimal. The blade is fitted to a lightweight wooden handle called a snath. The grips are comfortably positioned, permitting an upright, stress-free stance, and the blade is adjusted to skim parallel to the ground. For maximum performance and enjoyment the snath should be customized to fit the user's body proportions.
To mow, the blade is drawn from right to left in an arc. Only the leading third of the blade enters the uncut grass. This shearing action slices the grass like scissors. Falling grass caught by the blade and snath is deposited in a tidy pile at the end of each stroke. A stroke takes about as much effort as paddling a canoe.The mower can set a pace that is sustainable. The European blade has a curved back that allows it to ride in close contact with the ground.
The blade remains in contact with the ground during both the cutting and return stroke: There is no reason to lift it.
The stroke does not require great physical strength and does not rely on blade speed. It is not necessary to quickly rip the scythe through the grass. The stroke is deliberate and accurate. The shifting of your weight from side to side and the twisting of your torso power the blade. Occasionally you must stop to hone the blade and look behind to admire the precision of the windrow that's formed. In a good stand of grass even a child can cut a 7-foot-wide swath with each stroke. For full details on how to use and maintain a scythe, see the workshop pages of Scythesupply.com.
Sharpening a European scythe is a combination of hammering (called peening) and honing with a whetstone. The cutting edge is occasionally drawn out thin by using a hammer and a small anvil. In the field the blade is frequently and quickly honed with a water-soaked stone to maintain the sharp edge.
The American scythe is the type commonly found in tool sheds, antique shops and, unfortunately, in hardware stores. This scythe is harder to use and less efficient than the European style. This American pattern is mostly responsible for the scythe's reputation as a backbreaking, difficult tool.
The European scythe is an elegant combination of simplicity and
competence. The rewards of using the tool are worth the effort in
Sources for European Scythes:
Johnny's Selected Seed Catalog
Lehman's Hardware and Appliances, Inc.
Peaceful Valley Farm Supply
Alas both the village smithy and the spreading chestnut tree are gone, done in by what passed for progress in its day but sounds depressingly familiar in this one. Industrial mechanization replaced a thousand smithies' 'large and sinewy hands' with a single water-powered trip hammer, while a blight, unwittingly imported with expanded global trade, decimated the proud chestnut to a few stump sprouts. Along with these disappeared the tinsmiths, whitesmiths, cutlers, coopers and a dozen more metal trades of our handcrafted, preindustrial past. And, in this writer's view, along with the handworking trades went much of the attitude of sturdy, independent self-reliance that made America great.
Two hundred years ago, nearly everything was handcrafted, custom-made, made-from-scratch — by tradesmen or by the farmer and his wife. When junior was old enough to make a first proud step toward manhood by donning long pants, mother hand-stitched the britches from homespun cloth and father made the belt from harness leather and hammered out a belt buckle on the small forge, an art that was a feature of every farm. Not many of us will be making an iron belt buckle for our sons these days. For one thing, the other students would laugh him out of school as decidedly uncool. And, in this age of mass production, we could do better by selling the buckle as a handcrafted, neoantique rarity at the Craft Shoppe in town and buying the kid a whole new wardrobe with the proceeds.
But a working knowledge of the metal crafts has a too-often neglected place on the self-reliant family farmsteads of folks like you and me. Among our sacrifices, we've accepted responsibility for maintaining our own house and outbuildings, farm and garden equipment, autos and trucks, plumbing and wiring. All of these depend on arcane metal parts that when they fail, cause the typical in-town householder to call in a hideously expensive plumber, auto tech or electrician to perform repairs for them. (Or else, they rush out to buy an all-new appliance, part or gadget that is likely even shoddier — with more plastic than steel or brass — than the decades-old original that just broke.)
Easier, cheaper, quicker and vastly rewarding is to repair or replace the metal part yourself.
Yet, the very idea of working metal leaves most of us as cold as the steel itself. Few of us are brought up anymore realizing that we have the aptitude to form metal; metal has become the exclusive medium of the mass manufacturer. Odd, this, since any country person who maintains a house and barn learns basic woodworking. Granted, warm once-living wood is intuitively more inviting than cold, unyielding metal. But the fact is you work metal the same as you work wood, only metals are harder. The processes of measuring, cutting, fitting, fastening and finishing are essentially the same, whether you're building a wooden potato-storage crate or a sheet-metal maple-sap evaporating tray. You need different tools and techniques is all.
It's a major step in genuine country self-sufficiency to become as much of a metalsmith as time, talent, cash and inclination allow.
Hand tools, such as shovels, rakes, hoes, clippers, axes, mauls, wheelbarrows, garden carts, scythes, hammers, saws, pliers, wrenches and screw drivers can be purchased new or found at garage sales, flea markets and auctions. You may want to rely on larger tools, such as chainsaws, tillers and mowers, and spending the money for a new tool that meets your needs and is in good working order will make homesteading tasks easier to accomplish.
Large, motorized 'tools' — All-Terrain Vehicles (ATVs), tractors and riding mowers are wonderful additions to farms and homesteads. The up-front cost may be sizable, but the time and energy saved by using these motorized tools can be used on tasks that need a gentler touch.
It would be nice if I could share with you the wondrous aspects of my long-time favorite skillet, but until recently I didn't have one. Over the years, not a single one ever stole my heart. Having a quality, 12-inch skillet ought to be a necessity of life, though, along with shoes, cell phones and brie (OK, maybe not brie), so finally, I set out to find my 'one and only.'
As it turned out, I found several skillets that tickled my fancy: Calphalon's Commercial and Kitchen Essentials lines, All-Clad Metalcrafter's own brand (my favorite!) and Emerilware, developed by All-Clad with celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse. Here are the most important points to consider when you're searching for a skillet that will steal your heart.
Most all-purpose skillets have either flared or straight sides. Those with flared sides are called fry or omelet pans, and usually come without lids; food just slides right out of these pans and onto a plate. Those with straight sides are called saute pans, and they come with lids.
I decided to limit my spending to less than $150, although it's possible to buy skillets that cost twice that price. I tested numerous skillets for 'release-ability' (whether the food stuck to the pan), heat distribution and cooking time. I cooked a variety of foods, including eggs, pancakes, eggplant, plantains, tofu and chicken.
Appearance, durability, feel and whether the skillet was oven- or broiler-safe also were evaluated.
Appearance. This may seem frivolous, but a cookware's design is what initially will attract your attention. Imagine how the pan will look in your kitchen, on your stove. Evaluate its scratch-resistance. The best skillets I tested were heavy-gauge metal pans with stainless steel exteriors; they resisted scratches and dents better than either black enamel or anodized aluminum pans.
Durability runs a close second to appearance. All the skillets I liked were listed as dishwasher-safe, but company representatives all recommended hand-washing. Although better cookware will come with a lifetime warranty, be sure to read the fine print before you buy.
Feel is an important consideration, too. With the exception of cast iron pans, you shouldn't have to pump iron to fry an egg. A skillet should be a comfortable weight, but keep in mind that quality skillets are heavier than bargain-basement pans. But don't confuse 'heavy weight' with 'heavy gauge.' 'Gauge' is a measurement of the thickness of the metal used in the cookware's construction, not its weight.
Skillet handles will vary in feel, too, so test them out to find which suits you best. Metal handles probably won't feel quite as nice as wooden ones, but they will last forever. For safety's sake, handles should have a 'stay cool' quality and be riveted through the pan rather than screwed in place.
Options such as oven-safe or broiler-safe may be important to you, too. The skillets listed here are oven-safe up to a certain temperature, but all are not broiler-safe. If you love to brown your culinary creations under the broiler, you'll want a broiler-safe skillet.
If you have an electric range, especially a smooth top, you'll need a skillet that is ruler-flat on the bottom to ensure uniform cooking. And, if you're buying an omelet or fry pan, you also may want to find out whether a lid can be purchased separately, even though most of the time you won't need it.
It's no wonder some folks swear by their trusty cast iron skillets. Virtually indestructible, they cook fast once they're heated and handle the highest temperatures with ease. They're great for Cajun-style blackening; we use my grandma's to blacken fish on the grill, and to make corn bread in the oven. Iron skillets improve with age and can last several lifetimes.
Secondhand 10- or 12-inch cast iron skillets can be better than new ones. They're inexpensive, too, at $15 to $20 in flea markets or antique shops, although the collectible Wagner or Griswold brands usually will cost more.
The downside is these skillets are heavy, the handles get hot and the food can stick if the cast iron isn't properly seasoned or cleaned. There also can be problems with uneven heating, and the reactive metal does absorb and release food odors.
But on a Wisconsin winter's morning, I just love my brother-in-law's fried potatoes, cooked in his favorite 16-inch iron skillet, on his wood-burning stove.
If you're serious about swapping the urban rat race for a life of frugal, back-to-the-land self-sufficiency, the right equipment will make the difference between paradise and peril. The following list outlines some of the essential homesteading tools.
You'll need a properly sized, wheeled, perhaps engine-powered
machine to do the heavy hauling. The capacity you'll need and the
amount you'll pay will be determined by the size and topography of
your place, the nature of the work you intend to carry out, your
financial resources, maintenance skills, and available storage
facilities. Ideal, albeit impractical for most of us, would be a
team of horses, mules or oxen along with a hay wagon for field
work, a buckboard for trips to town, and a barn and paddock. If you
obtain beasts of burden, you'll also need pasture, hay and grain to
Commercial-grade Compact Diesel Tractors
The most universally capable modern homesteading machine we know of is a commercial-grade compact diesel tractor. We like Kubota tractors, John Deere's 20- to 48hp 2000 class and New Holland's Boomer line. Even the smallest models — which look like sturdily built lawn tractor mowers — are equipped with powerful diesel engines and industrial-quality transmissions and running gear. They also sport a three-point rear hitch that will mount commercial farm land plows, harrows and rakes and provide attachment points for a hay or field corn cutter bar or silage chopper, a sprayer or buzz saw. These tractors include a hydraulic system that will power remote motors on the chopper's flails, the sprayer's pump or the saw's blade. A modern, small diesel tractor is a major investment for a ranch or truck-farming operation — but one that will expand your homesteading capabilities beyond muscle-power, and will pay off every day for a lifetime or two of strenuous use.
An alternative to a new and relatively expensive tractor is a well-running antique tractor. They're not quite as capable or dependable as a contemporary tractor, but they're considerably less expensive. A small, still-running, antique tractor such as a late 1940s or 50s Farmall Cub or a low-riding, auto-style Ford 9N currently sell for a fraction of the price of a new one, a little more if they're outfitted with new rear tires or hydraulics. If at all possible, buy one with a newly rebuilt engine, an onboard hydraulic system, a rear-mount three-point hitch and one or two mechanical power takeoffs (PTOs) rather than a drawbar.
Invest in a modern under-frame (Woods), rotary brush hog or field mower and other post-1950s attachments. Look carefully, because museum-quality antique tractors from the 1930s and earlier often lack hydraulics and PTOs. (Polk's, the Antique Tractor Magazine, published by Dennis Polk Equipment of New Paris Indiana and Farm Collector from the folks at Odgen Publications in Topeka, KS are two great sources of info on older models better suited for displaying on the front yard than grinding in the cornrows).
Full-size Industrial Tractors
If you intend to do any really heavy work such as logging, trenching for soil-drainage pipes, digging in a septic tank or cutting a logging road through heavy woods, consider a full-size industrial tractor with a log grapple or excavating bucket on the front and a backhoe on the stem. New, they cost five or six figures. Good used ones cost about $15,000.
Deere Gator: For moderately heavy hauling chores that do not demand a bulldozer or a two-ton hydraulically equipped tractor, use your local Yellow Pages to find a franchised John Deere servicing dealer for a two- or four-wheel drive Gator. Sized like a cut-down jeep and powered and equipped for homestead-scale chores, it seats the driver and one or two passengers comfortably up front, but rides on farm tractor-style, forged-steel driveline components. It is lightweight enough to navigate marshes or hilly wooded tracks that could bog down a heavy tractor or four-wheel drive truck. It will pull a water trailer and, in its rear box, will carry several hay bales to livestock in a distant, dry pasture.
DR Powerwagon: Next size down in size and capacity are the DR Powerwagons, a unique line of powered garden carts made by Country Home Products. All sizes are tank-tough and capable of hauling 800 pounds of bricks, firewood, garden compost or rocks. They are maneuvered by hand with stout handles and castoring wheels at the back, thus avoiding the steering mechanism that would boost their cost.
Garden Way Carts
And finally, if a powered hauler is more than you can justify, get yourself a shiny, metal frame and brown stained, plywood box-bodied Garden Way-style garden cart like you see in many rural and suburban gardens. These carts were designed by Garden Way founders Eddie Robinson and Lyman Wood back in the 1940s; they took their inspiration from the amazingly well-balanced, high-wheeled railway station baggage carts of the day. You may remember Garden Way carts from the magazine ads that compared their lightweight, easy-dumping gardening convenience with a tippy, back-straining wheelbarrow. Perfectly balanced on easy-turning, rustproof, chrome-plated spoked wheels, a box cart will let you haul bulky or heavy loads of all kinds over an acre or so of flatland. A word of caution: Don't overload them.
A Heavy-duty Gardening Fork
Until you have been on your place long enough to improve the garden soil with rich, crumbly compost and loose, friable sand, your best investment in a hand tool is a heavy, British-made, three- or four-tined garden fork or landscaper's fork. It should have a stout, 40- to 44- inch ash or hickory handle shaft, a split-shaft wooden 'D' grip and a green, flat-tined business hand-forged from a single blank of carbon-manganese steel. Don't confuse this with the long-handled pitchfork designed for slip-pitching hay or straw. Granted, the garden fork is a bit of an investment, but it's well worth it — no other tool can do so much. The garden fork will dig through anything short of granite ledge; quarry well-striated, soft sandstone or limestone; lever up and remove field stones; turn and aerate wet compost and grub out the most stubborn tree roots. The multiple tines can penetrate soil that would repel any full-bladed tool, from the toughest sod or packed clay soil to (moistened) Southwestern hardpan, a good garden fork will break it loose with a stern tug on the handle.
A Heavy-duty Gardening Spade
A companion to the fork is the spade. This thick, flat, rectangular-blade shovel was used in northern Europe to cut pears for fuel, and was later adopted by American frontiersmen for cutting prairie sods to build walls for homes and farm buildings. A sturdy spade will chop up the sod or clay dislodged by the fork. Together, spade and fork can be alternated to pry large rocks out of the soil and lever them up on a stoneboat or into loops of logging chain to be skidded out by a tractor or team. Get a spade with the top edge of one or both sides of the blade bent back at 90° or fitted with a welded-on inch-wide strip of steel. This will support your boot when you step (or stomp) the blade into stubborn soil.
These traditional British gardener's tools may appear crude
compared with their more polished, mass-produced counterparts, but
they are beautiful in a rugged, utilitarian way. With respect and
dutiful maintenance, they'll last a lifetime and be passed on to a
grateful gardening son or daughter. The first of several lines to
be promoted in North America were Bulldog brand hand tools,
developed 200 years ago by Cistercian monks and imported a
generation ago by the West Coast gardener's supply mail-order
catalog, Smith and Hawken. Smith and
Hawken's now has its own brand name on imported tools but the
Bulldog brand is still available from the heirloom seed company,
A Garden Rake
Forget about the plastic or metal spring-tined leaf broom used for removing nature's autumnal debris; you'll need a wide, forged-steel, rigid-tined garden rake as described in Lehman's Non-Electric Catalog.
This garden rake is heavy-headed and well-balanced, ensuring that you needn't strain the small of your back or wrench the muscles in your arms and wrists bearing down on the handle to break clods and rake rocks out of newly tilled garden soil to make a smooth and level planting bed.
A Rear-tined Rotary Tiller
Garden Way's big, red Troy-Bilt Horse tiller was the first big seller; indeed Garden Way Manufacturing popularized the home garden rear-tined tiller back in the 1960s and 70s. Though the old Horse has been retired out to pasture, shaft-and-gear tillers are still available in a whole stableful of equine-named models and power ranges. Country Home Products markets a similar design, while BCS America sells a commercial-grade tiller built in Italy for local small-plot farmers and vintners. BCS walking tractors and tillers are equipped with commercial grade, American-built gas engines, so most common problems are readily fixed by any local small-engine mechanic.
No other machine is as useful as a cast-iron, steel and bronze,
rear-tined tiller when it comes to breaking up garden-size plots of
meadow or backyard lawn sod. A good tiller will almost effortlessly
accomplish spring and fall soil preparation, and is essential for
the organic gardener who wants to incorporate sand, manure,
compost, leaves and other natural soil enhancers into the
A Cordless Drill Driver
Once limited to six or seven-and-a-half volts, these cordless screwdrivers now come in 22 volts or higher, relative to size and weight. We still relegate heavy rotary-tool jobs to power drills, but get as big and heavy a cordless drill as you can afford and physically manage. You'll also want several Phillips-head or square-head drive bits and a variety of stainless and blue-steel, self-tapping deck screws. These deck screws, incidentally, are replacing nails in all phases of wood construction — they go in straight, fast and effortlessly and hold forever, but are easy to extract if necessary.
A Circular Utility Saw
Get a conventional, 112-volt circular saw with a seven-inch or larger blade for zipping through framing lumber. Skilsaw is the brand name for this tool that is second only to a framing hammer in tools most often used by house carpenters. Saws from any familiar tool manufacturer, however, will cut just as well and for just as long. For rough carpentry and demolition, get a supply of stamped blue-steel, non-resharpenable blades that will work for a long time, then go to the recycling dump. These blades are cheap and won't bankrupt you if they hit a nail. For precision cutting, invest in expensive, resharpenable carbide-tipped blades — and look for nails before you cut. For heavier jobs, you may want to invest in a ball bearing-equipped, worm-drive circular saw. This piece of equipment is heavy and awkward, and managing it requires both hands. It's also rather slow, but with the proper blade and lubricant, this saw will cut through anything, including concrete and bar steel. Expect to pay in excess of $125.
A Circular Detail Saw
A lightweight, high-speed, cordless circular saw, such as Makita's sausage-shaped, three-inch blade model, is well-suited to a wide variety of household cutting jobs and is the power cutting tool you will use most often. It's perfect for cutting through thin plywood, finish trim and soft metal or plastic sheeting. The circular detail saw comes in a carrying case with a battery or two and plug-in charger that can draw energy from your house current or truck's battery. Get extra batteries if you plan to work for more than an hour at a time. Once your house is framed and roofed, you can finish, wire and plumb most of it using this little dandy and a flat-jawed vise on a sawhorse to hold the work. If you're going to be working with long boards, plumbing pipe or lengths of electrical conduit, fit a second sawhorse with a vise to hold the materials in place.
A Simple Volt/Am Meter
This handheld meter features several ranges to measure the strength (voltage) and current flow (amperage) of high and low power, AC and DC electricity. It also displays the resistance to current flow (in ohms) of various electronic parts and materials. You can choose from two styles: a cheaper model with analog needle and dial, or a digital model. The analog model is easier to understand for those who are not products of the high-tech, digital era. Either way, this gizmo can literally be a lifesaver by telling you how much current is on plus a great deal more. If you are new to do-it-yourself electrical work, make sure your volt/am meter comes with an instruction book. You can find this item at any Radio Shack.
Fasteners and Wire
If your home is a substantial distance from the nearest hardware store, you can easily lose the meat of a workday driving to town to purchase the little piece of wire or fastener necessary for a safe, secure connection. Stock up on a collection of wire and fasteners any way you see fit — We like Harbor Freight and other discount tool catalogs. You'll want to store an assortment of twist-on electrical fasteners and reels, and spools or boxed coils of wire from fine generator wrap up to three-conductor, insulated 10-gauge household wiring. You'll find that you'll use it all in time — most popular sizes first. Just remember, if you lack the correct size, use the next-larger size for safety's sake.
Remember those rickety metal pliers that rattled loose on a bolt
head? Scrap 'em. Get yourself two pairs of electrician's pliers
with wire-stripper notches and plastic grip coverings. Made from
unplated, machine-tooled steel, these quality pliers have concealed
hinges, and grasp with precision. Be sure to look out for the
underside of your middle finger; it can get badly squashed between
A gasoline- or current-powered air compressor and a kit of the most commonly needed air tools (socket wrench, rotary impact wrench, screwdriver, die tool, spray gun, tire inflator, blower and others) will keep you going strong. An air compressor will power air tools and spray painting guns, and it's indispensable on those snowy mornings when you find a flat truck tire. As with any tool, get the most capable compressor you can afford. Look through the tool catalogs and check the operating pressure and airflow requirements of the tools you think you'll need. A compressor that can deliver seven cubic feet of air at 90 pounds per square inch will operate nearly any tool. It will even power up an air-hungry impact wrench to deliver more than 1,300 pounds of pressure to remove rusted-on lugnuts from an old tractor (be sure to use special black steel, impact sockets and plenty of penetrating oil on rusted parts).
Mechanic's Hand Tools
However long it takes to acquire them, you should treat yourself
to complete sets of top-quality pliers and screwdrivers, open and
box wrenches, and ratchet handles and extensions (plus both
standard and deep sockets) in SAE and metric sizes. You'll want a
range from 1/64' to at least 1 1/2'. Get extras of the
most-frequently used — thus, most frequently lost — socket sizes
(1/4', 3/8', 1/2', and 5/8' and their metric equivalents). Buy a
good rolling steel tool chest to hold them and the other tools you
will accumulate over time. Good tools (like Sears Craftsman or the
tools sold in any auto-parts store) are expensive, but it is false
economy to waste money on cheap tools. Their soft, imprecise
working surfaces will bruise corners of nuts, strip threads and get
your knuckles skinned. You can save some money by purchasing your
tools in sets and by holding out for special offers; check the back
of Sears' sales flyers.
The Merck Veterinary Manual
This 2,305-page directory of symptoms, causes and treatments for all diseases of domestic livestock is a real bargain. Also, get the Farm and Ranch Supplies Catalog from NASCO. This free catalog contains antibiotics, worming medication, syringes, bolus (huge pill) shooters, calf-pullers, simple surgical instruments, sutures, needles and any other veterinary devices the homesteader should try before calling a professional. Be sure to stock up on tins of Bag Balm medicated petroleum ointment and dauber-topped jugs of gentian violet antifungal wound dressing.
Clamshell Post-hole Digger
If you plan on sinking fence posts, you'll want one of these. Resembling a set of giant pliers, the clamshell post-hole digger is essential for sinking wooden fence posts deep enough to stay. Posthole diggers have four- or five-foot-long handles of wood or plastic and jaws shaped like opposing spoons. To dig a post-hole, you close the handles and use them to sink the closed jaws into the ground. Then, open the handles out wide to make the jaws take a bite of sod, soil or stone. Pick up the loaded tool (handles held wide open so jaws remain closed — an awkward stance) and close the handles. This will open the jaws to dump the bite of spoil into your garden cart.
Come-along and Wire Fence Mandrel
The come-along is a hand-operated fence stretcher with a ratchet/winch. The winch reels up a steel cable to pull on the mandrel. (The mandrel fits over the loose end of a length of wire fence already attached to a well-set corner or line post.) You can buy a wire fence mandrel or make your own to match the spacing of your fence wires by setting bolts through a length of steel or hard wood.
A three- to five-ton come-along will also winch your truck out of the mud, hoist a steer for skinning, or persuade a felled tree to land correctly.
This may be the most vicious-looking tool in existence: a set of long-handled pliers with a pickax on the working end and a sharp-grooved hammer face for banging big fence staples into wooden posts. There is also a pointed pick opposite the hammer end for removing the aforementioned staples.
In addition, there are several holes, clamps and crimpers to
cut, bend, splice and swage fence wire ranging from single-strand
aluminum electric fence to 10-gauge, spring-crimped Cyclone bull
fence. If you find this tool lacking, there is also a long-handled
version available. You can acquire fencing pliers from the farm
supply and homesteaders catalogs or from your local farmers'
Inexpensive and reliable, these sturdy old gray tractors can still get the job done.
What kind of guarantee comes with this?' I asked, suspiciously eyeing the few drops of oil on the pavement under the rear axle of an old gray Ford tractor.
'Well, none, actually,' replied the man who had it sitting out by the road with a for-sale sign. 'What you see is what you get, as is.'
The tractor in question was a 1946 Ford x 2N. The four-cylinder engine had been overhauled a few years earlier, he said. Then an old Pennsylvania-Dutchman, who probably bought it new when Truman was president, traded it in on a new Kubota.
The old gray tractors — the result of a partnership that later
dissolved into the separate Ford and Ferguson tractor lines —
revolutionized postwar farming. These classics have held up to
time, held onto collectors' hearts and held their value ever
The world is clearly running out of oil and gas, yet most people ignore the coming crisis. Food production and distribution in the industrialized world have become so dependent on petroleum use, it's hard to imagine how agriculture will function without this fuel.
The most promising option is solar-powered electric tractors, which offer several advantages over gas diesel-powered tractors. Electric motors can operate at more than 90 percent efficiency, while combustion engines are less than 15 percent efficient. Electric propulsion is ideally suited to high torque, slow-speed agricultural operations. Electric motors have only one moving part and require little maintenance. Internal combustion engines, on the other hand, have hundreds of moving parts and require a lot of maintenance.
Electric motors don't idle, which saves energy. Plus, while the
vehicle is going downhill or braking, an electric motor can become
a generator and return energy to the battery. This process, called
regenerative braking, further increases the efficiency of electric
propulsion and cannot be duplicated using other technologies.
Electric-wheel motors eliminate the need for an internal combustion
engine, transmission and differential, allowing new options in the
design of tractors. Mounting an electric motor in the hub creates a
self-propelled wheel that can provide new levels of versatility and
More energy-efficient than a truck and fun to drive, all-terrain utility vehicles (ATVs) are perfect machines for farm, garden and small-scale forestry work.
Just ask Lyle Hagerman, a dairy farmer and market gardener in Picton, Ontario. 'It's maneuverable, compact and powerful. The ATV's fat tires allow it to be driven over most terrain. We use ours to round up cattle, harvest vegetables and seed pastures. The new ones handle as well as a car, making them suited to anyone regardless of physical abilities.'
The ATV was orginally designed for transportation, and was first introduced in the early 1960s. Models had only three wheels, were unstable on rough terrain and not suited to heavy work. But in 1984, when the first four- and six-wheelers hit the ground, it was obvious that the heavy work of farming, gardening and forestry could be made a lot easier. Most of the new machines have engine displacements of 250 to 700 cubic centimeters (cc), can pull a load of up to half a ton and reach speeds of up to 50 mph. In addition, the many attachments that can be added to the front and back of an ATV allow it to be a multiuse utility vehicle. Prices range from $2,700 to $10,000, depending on engine size, number of wheels, four-wheel-drive capability and accessories.
The most valuable labor-saving ATV activity is hauling. Several new models, notably the John Deere Gator and Kawasaki's Mule have dump boxes located behind the driver's seat. They are both well suited to the homestead, built for work and should last a long time.
For ATVs without dump beds, trailers can be pulled behind the machine. Simply attach a trailer ball to the ATV's back hitch and your powerful machine becomes a hauling wonder. Bulky items including lumber, compost, straw or soil can be carried with ease. It won't be long before your overworked wheelbarrow will be gathering rust. The popular lawn trailer and garden-sized trailers work well for backyard garden jobs, but a full-size ATV trailer allows you to handle bigger projects.
'Special trailers are designed for ATVs that are similar in width to the ATV, making it easy to drive through tight places,' says Honda dealer Jeff Van der Veer of Napanee, Ontario. 'You can put the ATV on the trailer and tow it behind a truck to a rough or roadless work site, then attach the trailer to the ATV.'
Collecting firewood is a whole lot easier with an ATV and trailer. You can pile your chainsaw, gas and tools in the trailer and drive right to the dead wood that needs cutting. You can cut and split the wood on-site, load the trailer and then head to the woodshed. Since ATVs are fun to drive, recruiting a teenager to help with woodcutting isn't difficult either. (As fun as they are to drive, ATVs are not toys. For safe operation, manufacturers recommend an operator be at least 16 years old.)
The other firewood option is to haul the logs to the woodshed and cut and split there. Several companies manufacture ATV attachments to aid in moving logs safely and with minimal environmental damage. The Novajack Company makes a hauling harness called a logging arch that lifts up the front end of the log so you can pull it behind the ATV. They also make logging trailers that can haul loads. A slightly different logging arch, manufactured by Future Forestry, is a cross between the arch and a trailer. Its design allows more of the log to be lifted off the ground, reducing drag and embedded dirt on the logs to a minimum.
ATVs make towing a wood splitter to the pile of logs you skidded up to the woodshed easy. Logs that will be sawn into lumber can he set aside. Later, you can use your ATV to tow a portable sawmill to the pile. When sawn, the lumber can be loaded onto the trailer and hauled anywhere you like.
To make wood-chip mulch, tow a chipper to the brush pile you left in the woods and blow the chips right into the trailer. We use a few boards standing upright in the back of the trailer for the chips to hit as they come out of the machine. They fall right into the trailer. It's a simple matter to tow the load of mulch to the gardens.
While we're still on the subject of firewood and logging, there is another attachment that comes in very handy from time to time: a power winch. Smaller than the 5- to 10-ton capacity of track winches, most ATV winches are rated between 1,500 to 2,000 pounds and can be mounted on the front or rear of the machine.
A downed tree, off the trail and inaccessible to the ATV, can he
winched, pulled to the trail and then hooked up to be towed.
Inevitably the hardworking ATV will get stuck in the mud, and the
winch can be used to pull it out. Simply attach the winch cable to
the base of a tree, turn on the winch and out you'll come. The
winch also can be used to pull cars stuck in the snow or
MAX All-Terrain Vehicles
Portable sawmills fall into three general categories: chainsaw mills, circular sawmills and band sawmills. They are available in a diversity of styles and operating systems, and are priced to fit any budget. 'Which to pick,' says Will Johnson, president of TimberKing, a portable sawmill manufacturing company, 'depends on what you are going to do with it.'
The variables, he says, are how much lumber you plan to saw and how quickly you need to cut it. A third variable is how finely finished you need the boards to he. Here are the pros and cons of each type of mill:
From a cost standpoint, chainsaw mills are inexpensive, and are thus appealing for homestead and farm use. Prices start under $100. But these mills are relatively slow, which means you can use them for major projects only if you have lots of time. Even with the special chains used for lumbering, they still make rough cuts; further milling is required for finished surfaces.
And they waste a lot of wood. 'Generally,' says Erin Domagalski of Hud-Son Forest Equipment, 'a chainsaw mill has 20 percent more kerf (width of the blade cut) than a band sawmill.'
Most chainsaw mills require heavy-duty power heads. Your current chainsaw may not he powerful enough to run it, and a new chainsaw — which can double the cost — may be needed. Special-purpose chains and bars are required as well.
Most chainsaw mills are used with a framework you construct around the log you are cutting, which can he a slow, awkward process. Lining up the first cut is particularly important with these mills, because that surface acts as a guide for the rest of your cuts. The Alaskan Mark III from Granberg International is a good example of this type of chainsaw mill. Exceptions, such as the Total J100 (available through Tilton Equipment Co.), consist of a rail-and-stand system in which the log is held by base stands and the saw rides upside down on the rails.
At one time, all sawmills used circular blades. Most larger commercial operations still do. Their primary benefit is speed. Circular saws cut much faster than band saw's, but the downsides are that they are expensive and they usually have a larger kerf, so they waste more wood. The quality of the cut tends to be on the rough side.
Circular sawmills tend to be transportable, but not portable. They can take as much as a full day to erect once moved to the work site. And most times a crew of three to five people is needed to operate one efficiently and safely.
Older circular sawmills work with a vertical blade mounted in the bottom of the bed, similar to a workshop table saw. Modern ones position the blade overhead, with safety guards, like a radial arm saw. A good representative is the Mighty Mite 'D' series sawmills, which are priced starting at $29,500.
A novel approach is the Lucas Mill, an Australian design imported by Bailey's, which uses a special five-tooth, thin kerf blade mounted horizontally to cut logs that sit on the ground instead of laying on a bed.
Today's portable sawmill industry is dominated by bandmills. Technology has made them available in such an array of configurations and operating systems that they've almost displaced circular sawmills.
Although slower than circular sawmills, bandmills are truly portable either with an integral trailer system, or inside a pickup truck. They are simple and safe to operate; produce less waste because of a smaller kerf; create smoother surfaces, requiring less milling; and are flexible enough to cut specialty lumber, such as shakes, shingles and clapboards. And they are much more affordable, starting around $3,500.
Depending on your needs, they come configured as small, manually operated mills; as mid-sized units with power heads and basic hydraulics; and as industrial strength mills, with power heads, built-in debarkers, hydraulic log-handling systems and computerized networks.
When choosing a bandmill, the one thing you don't have to worry about is its cutting quality. Virtually all modern bandmills produce the same high-quality surfaces, requiring little final finish work. Configuration and cutting speed are the two important variables within each class.
However, don't pay much attention to manufacturers' claimed production speeds, says TimberKing's Will Johnson. 'Productivity numbers are almost meaningless,' he says. 'There are just too many variables—including log size, lumber thickness and how fast the operator can work—to provide realistic production figures.'
Decide whether or not you really need the particular bells and whistles on any given model. While full hydraulics are helpful, for instance, they can push the price up to $30,000 very quickly.
Manual bandmills come with either ground-level or elevated beds. Ground-level beds usually are found on mills that are transported by truck. Log handling is a lot easier with them, but there may be more operator fatigue from constant bending. Elevated-bed mills usually are transported by trailer, and are easier to operate. But log handling is more of a bother, requiring ramps, lifts or additional equipment.
Manual bandmills can be used for commercial cutting, but are considered best for personal use on farms and small acreage's.
A step up from manual mills are those with automatic carriage-feed systems and, in some cases, automatic setworks. Most do not include log-handling hydraulics. These mills are a lot less labor intensive, and are good for custom sawing. They also are a good option for those with physical limitations, or for jobs requiring a lot of cutting in a short time period.
Bandmills in the middle price range include hydraulic log loading, turning, clamping, and, in some cases, hydraulic toe boards. They are considered ideal for custom-cutting and production.
At the top of the line are the high production bandmills. These come with complete hydraulic and electronic operations for greater production, custom sawing and commercial lumber manufacturing.
When you're considering purchasing a sawmill, part of your decision should include what necessary accessories, such as log-handling equipment, you might need. If you can do the job with cant hoops and peavey poles, then a manual mill might meet all your requirements. But if you want to cut bigger logs that require a separate log lifter, then a hydraulic mill might make better sense.
Cook's Sawmill Manufacturing
Dave's Welding (Timber Grizz)
Hud-Son Forest Equipment
Linn Lumber Mills
Norwood Ind. (LumberMate)
Thomas Bandsaw Mills
Sawmill marketing data and catalogs seem so filled with hyperbole and lack of objective comparisons that it can be difficult to know what to consider when buying a mill. We asked Brian Grodner, co-owner of The Sawmill Exchange, the largest broker of used sawmills in the country, for his thoughts. Grodner has no dog in this fight, so his comments are worth listening to. Among the things he says to consider:
Not every portable sawmill readily fits into one category or another. Hybrid sawmills combine parts and functions of several categories. There are two of particular note:
Logosol's M7 Swedish Mill: the chainmill that thinks it's a bandmill. At first glance, the Swedish Mill looks like a bandmill. It uses an adjustable log bed, power-head rail, logdogs (clamps that hold the logs in place) and an overhead support arm, like all bandmills. But the power head is a chainsaw.
Not any chainsaw will work with it, however. Logosol recommends the Husqvarna 395XP, which generates 7.1 horsepower. Along with the heavy-duty power head, a special bar and low-profile chain produce a 1/4-inch kerf, about the same as a band saw. The final finish is said to be equal to a band blade as well. Bars are available in 16- ,20- and 25-inch cutting lengths.
Better-Built's Ripsaw: the bandmill that thinks it's a chainmill. Imagine lifting the entire power head and blade support off a bandmill, then building a cutting guide around a log (as you would with a chainmill), and hand-feeding the band saw into the log. In a nutshell, that's the RipSaw.
The Ripsaw comes in two versions. One has its engine. The other
is a conversion kit that lets you turn your chainsaw into a
bandmill in about 10 minutes. According to the manufacturer, you
can use the chainsaw to fell trees, then install the conversion kit
and turn those trees into finished lumber.
The easy way to keep your livestock in and predators out.
In recent years, electric fencing innovations have revolutionized some forms of livestock grazing and protection, and garden crop protection, too.
Now, effective and relatively inexpensive temporary electric fencing is available to protect everything from small animals such as chickens in the barnyard or pasture to larger animals such as riding horses out for weekend trail rides or involved in strip grazing.
Although some electric fences are considered permanent, much like a traditionally built fence, other styles are intended for semi-permanent or temporary applications, giving users more flexibility and economy in meeting such fencing needs than they've ever had in the past. Modern temporary styles of electric fencing include the familiar rope line fence, some tape fence styles and various sizes of mesh netting; all can be set up or taken down in a matter of minutes.
Pennsylvania farmer Brian Moyer pastures 1,400 broilers annually, using 42-inch-high electric netting with 31/2-inch-square openings and plastic posts. Moyer says he especially likes the heavy-plastic, step-in posts, which he just pushes into the ground with his foot (or in dry times, hammers in with a rubber mallet.)
The portability of temporary electric fencing means it can be moved about according to pre-planned grazing patterns. The practice allows more intensive use of pasturelands than is possible with permanent fencing of larger areas. Aaron Silverman raises about 15,000 broilers a year in a small valley in Oregon. 'Our fields are bordered by riparian zones — a river or a creek where there are nesting marsh hawks and red-tailed hawks, bobcat runs and coyote trails.
'When we started with traditional pastured poultry zones, we confined the birds to the portable enclosures at all times and moved the enclosures once, maybe twice a day. We noticed that whenever we were close to a riparian zone, we would lose birds to raccoons, 'possums and skunks, which were able to sneak under the fencing.'
To establish secure outdoor pens for the birds, Silverman tested electric sheep netting, with mesh small enough to stop coyotes, but not weasels, 'so we were still losing birds.' Next, he tried electric poultry netting with 2-by-3-inch openings and thin, rigid-plastic verticals that keep the fence upright without corner tension braces.
'That pretty much took care of it,' he says. The netted fence keeps out predators as small as rats — as long as it's moved regularly. When left in place for several weeks, such as around a greenhouse-turned-brooder house, rats eventually tunnel underneath to get at the chickens. 'In the field,' he says, 'where we are moving the fence on a continual basis, they (the rats) respect it.'
Permanent and semi-permanent electric fencing are most effective in applications involving large livestock. Temporary electric fencing and netting work well for smaller animals, or very short-term applications for large livestock.
Gallagher Power Fence
Ferris Fencing (Canada)
In 1972, I knew nothing about farming; I was just a small businessman from Chicago with no spare time. But, I ended up buying a farm in Richland County, Wis., from a friend, and tried raising cattle on the land, then bees. But these didn't suit me. So, when the county forester proposed that I start a tree farm, I was ecstatic. Over the next 20 years, I learned by experience the joys — and work — of creating a forest. My ideas of forest management are based on using it as a long-term investment strategy and a way to have fun.
To reduce forest stewardship to its barest essentials, all you need is a piece of land. Let's say you have a half-acre of land in a part of the country where trees grow. In a matter of a few decades, the land will revert to forest if you leave it alone. But if you have an acre of land, or more, you can speed the forestation process along. And, not much is required: Gather seeds, disturb the earth — dig it, rototill it, plow it — and sow away. You needn't feel you don't have the time, the money or the know-how to create a woodland for your own enjoyment. It's an avocation that suits any schedule, fortune or inclination.
Before you start, think about these '10 Commandments,' things I've learned that have made owning a woodland a rewarding experience:
Your woodland should be a source of pleasure and joy. Sounds, animal activity and interesting vegetation are everywhere. Let nothing interfere with the enjoyment of your forest.
One key to enjoying your woodland is buying land that is quick and easy to get to. Buying land nearer to 'civilization' also makes good investment sense, because it is more likely to appreciate in value than land located far away from populated areas.
On the other hand, if you live in a sprawling metropolitan area or a part of the country where the landscape is boring, you may decide a longer drive is worth it. Regardless of location, real estate should appreciate roughly on par with alternative investments.
At least not in the short term. It is unlikely that you'll see much profit from cultivating trees for hardwood veneers. Sure, a timber sale from sought-after trees, such as walnuts, can bring a windfall, but hardwood trees take about a century to reach maturity. Considered over the long run, your rate of return is much less than you would get from buying a certificate of deposit and there won't be any regular cash flow. There may be money in practicing short-rotation forestry, such as growing pines for pulp, but this sort of tree farming is not friendly to nature, not nice to look at and not any fun.
If return on your investment is what you're after, place your hopes in appreciating land values rather then profitable timber sales.
Your pleasure is more likely to come from observing and working your forest than from its size.
Small-scale forestry is a poor business, but personally very enriching. Only do it to the extent that it gives you pleasure while you work the land and walk among your trees.
Doing nothing is one way to be kind to your small woodland. This means do not clear-cut, do not use chemicals and minimize the use of your lawn mower. (You will soon observe that in the country, a tract of land in its natural state is much more interesting and a lot less work than a manicured lawn.) If you want to actively benefit the environment, eliminate nonnative species, encourage trees that provide food and shelter for wildlife, and allow old trees to recycle themselves. (See 'The Life in Dead Trees,' Mother Earth News August/September 2004.)
No matter the size of your land, you can improve it with forestry. As a starting point, I suggest you contact a forester through your state's Department of Natural Resources. Such a professional can provide useful literature, possibly prepare a management plan for your woodland and suggest certain management practices. He or she also can let you know whether your state has any programs benefiting small woodland owners. If you participate in any government subsidies or other programs, you are bound to honor your commitments. Follow foresters' advice, except when it conflicts with what you want to do, and follow your own instincts.
You may not get rich growing trees for market, but you should still favor trees that are most likely to have timber value in the future. You may either plant tree seeds directly in the soil, or plant seedlings and follow accepted forestry practices to make them marketable. Follow the German Dauerwald philosophy that calls for growing timber in mixed forests of native species, unevenly aged, in a biodiverse environment with abundant wildlife.
Often, woodland owners apply their city values to their woodland dealings. They think they have to mow, grind trimmed branches into tiny wood chips and eliminate natural ground vegetation. Remember that nature recycles more efficiently than you do and that the 'waste' created by natural vegetation is essential to environmental health.
Another compulsion is to grow trees like row crops. Try to avoid this; trees grow well in a natural environment together with all kinds of other vegetation. A plantation is boring, more work for you and more prone to infestation and disease. If you do plant seedlings, mix the species up as much as you can. They will grow better, foster more wildlife and be more enjoyable.
Attend conferences of woodland owners' associations, which many states host (visit www.woodlandowners.org). They offer useful lectures and opportunities for vendors to sell their wares. You will learn a great deal, and you will enjoy meeting others who share your interests. Contact the U.S. Forest Service and your local Extension Service for information about small-woodland forestry. Make your land available as a demonstration site to help educate other, less-experienced woodland owners.
Become politically active. Encourage government to recognize the
importance of private woodland owners in preserving our natural
environment. Woodland owners play an important role in preserving
pure water, preventing floods and maintaining the equilibrium of
our climate. The benefits woodland owners get in return —
gratification and a wooded haven — can last for
Dreaming of a new home or barn you can't quite afford? If you cut your own lumber using a portable sawmill, you could save enough to bring the project within reach. And you can use the mill to develop a home business custom-cutting lumber or producing other wood products. (Or, after you've cut all the lumber you need, you could sell the mill.)
This special section outlines how to choose and use a portable mill to create value-added lumber and other products for your home business. Even if you don't have your own forest, you can salvage storm-damaged trees or harvest trees being removed when land is cleared for construction or farming When it comes to making money from lumber, it's all about value added,' says Michael Best. 'The further you take wood from a tree to a finished product, the more valuable it is.'
Best is the executive director of the nonprofit Sustainable Mountain Agricultural Center near Berea, Kentucky. SMAC's mission is to demonstrate that sustainable agriculture is possible on small farms. 'Farmers can make enough profit from a sawmill home business to avoid working outside the farm if they utilize the whole farm, including woodlots.'
Initially, SMAC used its manually operated Wood-Mizer LT40 portable sawmill for on-farm use, cutting trees for tomato stakes, barn hoards and racks.
In conjunction with the University of Tennessee's Agricultural
Development Center and funded through the U.S. Department of
Agriculture's Sustainable Research and Education Program, SMAC
recently conducted a survey to determine woodworkers' preferences
and buying habits. Anyone contemplating making money with portable
sawmills should read the study. Copies are available from the
Sustainable Mountain Agricultural Center; 1033 Pilot Knob Cemetery
Road: Berea, KY 40403; (859) 985-8648; www.heirlooms.org.
Growing plants for retail or wholesale is an interesting and fun way to earn money involving the whole family. You don't need much land (our backyard nursery is only 1/20 of an acre), you can grow thousands of plants at a time, and you earn several thousand dollars a year ... working right at home.
Starting a nursery in your back yard is probably easier than you think. When most people think of a plant nursery,they visualize huge greenhouses, tractors and other expensive equipment. The fact is, as a backyard grower you don't need any of those things to get started. All you need is a small area to start growing some plants and a little bit of information on landscape plant propagation. Thankfully, there are many simple and easy propagation techniques that are easy to learn and work really well.
Here in the far northeastern corner of Ohio we have more than 100 nurseries, ranging in size from our 1/20 of an acre to much larger ones measuring 600 acres. Many of these nurseries were called 'lunchbox' nurseries, a term that dates from the early 1900s when employees of one large wholesale nursery would smuggle cuttings home in their lunch boxes to start their own backyard nurseries. Many of these startups grew into very productive and profitable enterprises.
When you're ready to sell the plants you grow, there are many different ways to go about it. We grow most of our plants in small containers and sell them for $4 each. It costs us about 23 cents to produce one of these little plants, and most of that cost is the plastic container — the cost of the plant is next to nothing. We spend $10 on sand, $20 on rooting compound, and can do 7,000 cuttings or more with these materials, which brings the cost per cutting to less than a penny. As close as I can figure, our cost for the potting soil is about 5 cents for a two-quart container. The cost of the plastic container is around 16 cents. A small ad in the local paper brings in customers like crazy and, because we're lucky enough to live in a community that allows us to sell directly from our home, we sell both wholesale and retail from our backyard nursery.
If you can't do retail sales from home, you should still be able to establish a wholesale business. Large nurseries spend thousands of dollars each year buying plants they need. Some of them buy rooted cuttings while others buy landscape-size plants. Whatever the case, they will buy from you if you offer good-quality plants at fair prices.
You could even have a backyard nursery specializing only in rooted cuttings. A four-inch cutting with roots has value on the market, and there are wholesale buyers who purchase thousands of them at a time. Rooted cuttings sell for as little as 35 cents or as much as $1.25, depending on the variety. If you grow the plants for one year after they are rooted you can sell them wholesale as one-year transplants, which increases the price to $1.50 or more. There is a market for just about any size plant you choose to grow — and the market is larger than you could ever imagine.
I have a friend who roots and sells grapevines as one- and two-year-old plants. At his 100-acre nursery they make over 500,000 grapevine cuttings each winter, as well as tens of thousands of flowering shrub cuttings every summer. He grows about 100,000 burning bush plants each year and sells them bare root, which is much easier and less expensive than wrapping up a root ball in burlap. After digging the plants up, they shake all the soil from the roots, tie them in bundles of ten, and stack them in an insulated barn until it's time to load them on their customer's truck. The nursery's annual sales exceed 2 million dollars!
That said, the backyard nursery business is not a get-rich-quick business by any means. It takes many years to establish a large nursery. On the other hand, it's a project that you can start with very little money and expand into a thriving home business. In fact, getting started is as easy as deciding what types of plants you would like to grow and acquiring a few that you can use as stock plants to get cuttings from. You'll also need a nursery stock producer and/or vendor license from your state department of agriculture. There is a small fee for the license, but you should contact your county department of commerce for local regulations and information.
Also, you need to know that some plants are patented or are sold under names that are registered trademarks. You cannot grow these plants without entering into an agreement with the person or company that holds the right to them. Don't bother growing these plants; there are plenty of others that you can grow without the hassles. When you go to buy them, just look for a patent number, or 'patent pending' on the label or keep an eye out for the trademark symbol ®. Lastly, make sure you know both the correct common name and botanical name of the plants you intend to grow. You must have them properly labeled in order to sell them. Good luck and have fun!
With vacationing pet owners searching for home-style animal
care, it's a good time to start your total-care dog and cat
A few years back I suddenly found myself without a job. However, what could have been a disastrous — or, at the very least, unpleasant — situation actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise. You see, once we were faced with the prospect of not having a regular source of income, my wife and I were forced to look into the possibility of starting a home business. And, after some thought, we settled on a highly profitable enterprise that I believe almost anyone could begin in his or her home — either on a full-time basis or for only a few hours a week — with a minimal cash investment. Just what was this gold mine we discovered? A total-care dog and cat business!
Believe it or not, our operation is as easy and enjoyable to run
as it likely sounds to the animal lovers among you. The services we
offer include bathing, dipping, trimming nails, grooming, boarding,
walking, training, housebreaking, selling collars and leashes, and
maintaining breed/stud files. And all these duties can be performed
by any enterprising individual ... at a surprisingly high
How can I free myself from the 9-to-5 rat race and start a home business? How can I be my own employer and not spend a fortune doing it? Here's what you need to know — and invest — to start a new life.
We wanted to be able to answer these questions with confidence, so we set out to identify what we consider to be the best home-based businesses, given the realities of the new decade. Before we introduce you to the businesses, a little introduction to our picking and choosing techniques is in order.
First, we drew on our own experience. We have been working from home ourselves since 1974, and ever since we began writing our book Working from Home in 1980, we have been tracking which businesses people have been running successfully from home.
Once we identified home businesses that seemed to have a good
future, we had to address the issue of what qualifies a business as
the best. Income potential was certainly one criterion. We also
considered other factors like lifestyle considerations, since today
people want more than money from their work.
THE BEST HOME BUSINESSES:
Building a classic, functional barn can be easier and more affordable than you think.
Barns have long been a cherished part of the American landscape as symbols of our agricultural heritage. Barns of the past spoke volumes about the farmers who built them: what types of crops and animals they raised, which foreign land they once called home, and how successful and prosperous they had been. But somewhere in the past half-century, the art of the barn was lost. Instead of building barns that reflected regional and occupational differences, many rural residents across America started erecting one-story, steel-clad buildings to house animals, crops, machinery, tools and vehicles. The era of beautiful barns seemed to have come to an end.
Today, though, there are signs of a barn-building renaissance. Several architects, designers and builders are selling plans and kits for traditional barns, and the Internet has made them widely available. Proper use of scale, proportion and simple details can mimic the grace of old barns and make new barns more appealing. If a new barn is in your future, don't be afraid to expect more than just storage space. Building a barn that also looks great takes effort, but the results will add to the value of your property and be attractive, too.
The best news is that many of these traditional-looking barns are designed to be no more expensive, perhaps even less so, than metal buildings. 'A well-designed barn, using wood siding, can be surprisingly affordable. The price can be in the same range as an ugly metal box if the owners are willing to get involved, even if it only is to manage the building project, saving the cost of a contractor,' says Craig Wallin, author of Small Barn Plans for Owner-Builders.
A few simple tricks can give new barns that classic feel. Z-braced barn doors and traditional window trim are the kinds of features that don't cost a lot but that can make a world of difference in the aesthetics of the building. Roofs are also important. 'Traditional barns were usually two or more floors, or at least a floor and a loft,' says small-barn designer Donald Berg, Rockville Centre, N.Y. 'It's the loft and the big roof that give a barn its character. Modern pole barns have shallow-truss roofs and no lofts. That gives them a flat, uninteresting look.'
Wallin agrees the roof makes the barn: 'Features that make a barn attractive and traditional are a steeper pitched roof — at least an 8:12 pitch (the roof inclines 8 inches for every 12 inches of length), with generous overhangs.'
Cupolas big enough to ventilate the barn are also classic barn features. Farmers used to take pride in designing cupolas that reflected their own individual style.
Here are some suggestions for building a barn that is
traditional in style and economical in price:
Size and Design
Choose your building materials with an eye towards aesthetics. Siding is the most obvious feature of the barn, and you can choose from wooden lap, wooden board and batten, composites such as T-111 (a brand of plywood siding), fiber-cement lap or panels, steel panels, or vinyl. 'I've used T-111, HardiPlank (a brand of fiber-cement siding), rough sawn boards and even metal siding,' Berg says. 'Any and all can look good if they're on a well-proportioned barn.' The idea is to mimic the grace and style of a classic barn as much as possible, without sacrificing functionality.
Roofing materials need careful consideration, too. Metal roofs are common, but you also can use composite shingles to match your house or wood shingles to mimic historic barn roofs.
Doors and windows also will have significant impact on the character of your barn. If you really want to stick with tradition, you can build your own barn doors, such as Z-braced Dutch doors or sliding doors, or you can purchase them from a horse-barn specialty manufacturer. Specialized doors are more expensive than manufactured residential doors, though, so if you need to keep an eye on costs, stick with a door that's readily available.
Historic barns usually have fixed or awning windows that either don't open or that are hinged on the top or bottom and open only slightly. If you want to be able to open your new barn's windows and keep the barn free of wasps, birds and other critters, you are probably better off purchasing double-hung house windows with screens.
One of the most fetching features of an old barn is the cupola, often topped with a weather vane. Some companies that make metal barns put small ornamental cupolas on the roofs, but a real cupola functions as a ventilator, drawing warm air upward and releasing it outside.
Functioning cupolas on historic barns were big because they had to draw off the heat and moisture from a number of large animals and hay. To keep that authentic look, be sure to get your cupola's proportions correct. Berg, who has studied the proportions of old barns throughout the country, says a functioning cupola should be built to a ratio of 1 1/4-to-1 1/2 inches for each foot of roof line; for example, a 24-foot barn needs a 36-inch-square cupola.
Site your barn carefully. A hallmark of many American farms is that outbuildings are all placed exactly on the square, with walls at right angles or parallel to each other, Berg says. That neatness and symmetry is naturally appealing to the eye. If you want to vary from this, try not to put your barn too far away from your house or it won't be convenient, but don't upstage your house with the barn, either. Also, be sure to place your barn in convenient conjunction with drives, walkways and other outbuildings, and keep nature in mind by allowing for the growth of trees and the direction of water runoff on your property. Last but not least, don't forget to evaluate what you're doing to your view.
Build your Own
Experts say that you can save half the cost of a pole barn by doing the work yourself. If you have some building skills, you'll find a pole barn is a good place to hone them because you don't need every detail cosmetically perfect.
Wallin says that, unless you have experience in construction, you will probably appreciate the help of a professional to build the foundation and shell of the barn, both of which are fairly major undertakings. Kits are available from several companies; you can build one yourself or hire a local builder.
Another option is to hire a builder who specializes in timber framing and who will be able to get trees milled locally into lumber for the project. That was the approach taken by Mark Cain of Huntsville, Ark., who needed a barn for his flower and blueberry farm. He hired a local timber framer and a neighbor with a sawmill, and they found enough big trees on his land to mill into the huge timbers for the barn's frame, plus boards for the board-and-batten siding. Then, Mark staged an old-fashioned barn raising with 30 people present to raise the first-floor timbers on his 24-by-48-foot, two-story barn.
Wind vents on the roof of this 1833 corn barn, built near Bernardston, Mass., were to prevent the roof from blowing off; the plan originated in England, where America's high winds were widely reported.
Hiring a Builder
If you decide to use a builder, choose carefully. Get recommendations from other people who have hired barn builders, and then contact two or three, and ask them to bid on your project. Builders who specialize in truss-roof metal buildings are certainly capable of building a custom barn. You may be surprised at the wide range of styles and custom design services available from national barn companies that are best known for their metal pole barns.
When you ask for bids on your building, be specific about materials and request that all siding, roofing, windows and doors be described. If possible, go to the building-supply yard yourself to approve the materials the builder has quoted. Be sure the builder specifies how long it will take to build your barn, including a reasonable completion date. Be as specific as you can when going out to bid; you don't want to discover a miscommunication when the building is halfway built — that leads to cost overruns and bad feelings.
That brings us to the question that is probably foremost in your mind: How much will a new barn cost?
That's a hard one to answer, because so many variables, from location to materials, affect construction costs. If you want to build a barn at your rocky mountainside retreat in Colorado, you could easily spend as much for site preparation as someone else spends on an entire barn built on a rolling Iowa meadow. Still, most people find ballpark figures more helpful than no-park figures, so consider these barn-building examples:
Wallin says one of his 1,872 square-foot barn designs was built in 2003 for a materials cost of $18,000, or about $10 per square foot, which is a typical cost for other barns he's built. Double that if you hire a builder.
Berg says his barns cost on average $25 per square foot of ground-floor space (not including the loft) if built by a contractor.
The barn we built last year cost $19,500 for a 768-square-foot footprint, or about $25 per square foot. Add in the storage space in the loft, and the cost drops to about $16 per square foot.
Cain figures his barn, which is almost 2,300 square feet (including the second floor), cost about $20,000, or less than $9 per square foot. He cut costs by using his own trees for timbers and siding; allowing timber framers to use his barn as a demonstration project, which reduced his labor costs; and having friends over for the barn raising.
Building a barn on your property doesn't have to be expensive or difficult. And when you think of the benefits — beauty, increased property value, functional work space and recreating a piece of American history — planning your barn can be a great investment along with just plain fun.
There are so many good reasons to keep chickens that even city folks really should have a few birds. But too many backyard chicken operations look like something plucked out of a John Steinbeck novel, and that's a stumbling block for many. While the chicken-shack lifestyle is fine for some folks, the cause of sustainable, small-scale food production will never make serious headway unless it is presented with a touch of class and style. That's the goal of MOTHER'S mini-coop, which makes it easy to keep a few hens even in the fanciest neighborhood or smallest back yard.
Our design team sought the advice of several poultry experts in our quest to come up with a coop design that keeps the birds safe and productive, makes daily care as easy as possible, and looks good enough to park on a front lawn in town. The mini-coop keeps the birds safely fenced in, but can be easily moved around the yard and garden by just one person, so the birds can feed on fresh grass and bugs as much of the year as possible. The sheltered coop area is about 4x4-feet a perfect bedroom for three or four hens. The attached chicken yard is 4x5-feet, or you could make it longer if you want to.
MOTHER's mini-coop is a great project for kids. It's easy for
children to help build the unit, then take complete responsibility
for overseeing the egg production, giving them valuable, hands-on
experience. You can even slip the coop into the back of a pickup
truck — chickens and all — and take it to schools for
demonstrations. We predict your local schools will be glad to host
Summer's getting long in the tooth; rain is scarce and leaves are beginning to show color. The family vacation is over—if not paid for—the garden is tending itself, the fish have quit biting, and pro football hasn't yet kicked off. Weekends drag ... it's time to find something to get you out of the house. What better project than building a shed to store your gear?
In just such circumstances some years back, I responded to a magazine ad for a plan set that promised a pretty shed 'anyone could build.' But the plan proved to be nothing but a single sheet of paper with a crude drawing, a materials list written in shorthand, and instructions that began 'Anchor sole plate ...' What's a sole plate? Don't ask me — the plan didn't say.
As luck would have it, our little country town took up recycling that year and I got to carry boards for a carpenter as he built us an open-fronted recycling shed. I still have a mind's-eye picture of him with his deliberate but steady pace, measuring twice, cutting once, and then setting nails with a whack. Thus instructed, I built a scaled-down version of the recycling shed, closed in the front, and made a woodplank door and sliding window. You can use this shed to store garden tools or wood, to garage your lawn tractor and attachments, to house a few goats, sheep, or chickens, or for a combination of uses. (Just be sure to put a dust-proof partition between the laying hens and your work or storage area.)
The shed is a few inches short of 16' long, 8' high and deep.
It's designed for mistake-proof construction, using economical,
standard-size materials. But it is made to last, with ground-facing
floor beams of pressure-treated lumber to resist decay and insect
damage, and a frame more closely spaced than you'll find in many
new homes. The siding is T-1-11 plywood, which is weather-proofed
and grooved on one side to simulate barn boards.
Build a woodshed that will last 200 years.
The woodsheds that help make the evenings glow and crackle must be filled by local woodsmen as fast as they are emptied by vacationers, and they are marvelously designed for the use. The best have full-open fronts for easy access, no floors to trip over or low roofs to bump a head on. They are not so deep that either loader or unloader has to step in more than one pace. Roofs are steep enough in back to shed the heaviest snowfall and have a front overhang that is so sharply-pitched it will never collect snow to avalanche off and dump down the back of a wood gatherer's neck ... and that juts out just far enough to keep rain or snow off the wood.
Here is how to build your own Vermont-ski-country woodshed.
Dimensions and materials are given for 1 1/2-, 2-, 3-, and 4-cord
capacities. When empty in the summer, any size can serve to store
the garden tools or mower. Add a folding shelf in back and use it
as a potting shed. Or, add a floor, frame and close in the front,
cut door and window openings and you have a garden house, work shed
or playhouse for the kids.
Our new greenhouse does so many different things that it's been difficult to figure out what to call it. Naming it by its separate functions could lead to a conglomeration such as this: compost-heat- and active-solar-heat-augmented, photovoltaic, earth-bermed, plant propagation and production rabbit hutch/chicken coop/terraced growing bed/runway greenhouse system. See what we mean? Let's compromise and use a term coined by the New Alchemy Institute — bioshelter.
The design of the structure was conceived in an attempt to get as many quality uses as possible out of one building by integrating it with its living occupants wherever possible. The goal, however, isn't so much to see how many interactions of plant, animal, and building we can create as it is to develop the most effective ones. For example, in the back of the bioshelter is a small room where chickens and rabbits can come in out of the weather. The solar input helps keep the critters warm, while the animals themselves add their body heat to the building. More important, the structure of their home adds to the overall mass of the greenhouse. The fully bermed masonry walls help to stabilize interior temperature. All these factors (and more) work together to create a beneficial thermal environment.
Despite the attention paid to creature comfort, the bioshelter is still primarily intended for plant production. And the key to getting the most from the greenhouse beds is to keep soil temperature up — preferably in the 80°F range. (Up to a point, plants double their growth rate for each 10°F rise in soil temperature.) Air temperature is less important as long as it's high enough to prevent leaves from freezing. Consequently, our growing beds are heavily insulated on the sides, and the 10' of medium in each rests on a layer of rock through which warm air can be circulated. The areas under the beds are sealed but are accessible through hatches that allow us to experiment with several different supplemental heating methods, and we've borrowed ideas from a few other research organizations to pump warmth from these chambers into the soil.
First, we've taken a lesson from Rodale Press's Residential Passive Solar Greenhouse and are picking up hot air from the ceiling and distributing it below the beds. A squirrel-cage blower powered by a Solarex photovoltaic panel hooked to a battery moves the air around. The fan takes orders from a blower control thermostat that switches it on when the temperature at the peak reaches 85° F and from a heating thermostat that turns it back off when the temperature drops to 75° F. There's also a manual override switch we use to force air into the compost piles when necessary for maintaining decomposition.
Rodale's greenhouse has rock under the beds to offer mass for
heat storage; a system that seems to work quite well. However,
we've followed the lead of the Biothermal Energy Center (P.O. Box
3112, Portland, ME 04101) and the New Alchemy Institute and are
composting various mixtures of organic matter in the bins beneath
our beds. Though this technique is still in the experimental stage,
it does have a number of both already-demonstrated and still
theoretical benefits. The most obvious plus is that decomposing
organic matter produces a great deal of heat: Our compost piles
have reached 180° F and have maintained 160° F for more than a week
at a time. Furthermore, the same material also yields moisture,
carbon dioxide, and nutrients, which rise through the rocks and
into the growing medium. These benefits are at least as effective
as the heat input in increasing plant growth rate, but further
experimentation is needed to determine the optimum mix of organic
matter in the compost piles themselves.
I don't live on a farm or a remote mountainside — nowhere near the 'boonies,' as my mother calls the countryside. I am just another suburbanite with a half-acre plot and a brick ranch house in the middle of it. Our yard is modest, but we've found even on this small amount of land, a family can go a long way toward self-sufficiency.
In the spring of 1982, I left the staff of Mother Earth News to move to ... no, not a wilderness home on the outskirts of civilization, but (gasp) The City! I suspect that at the time some of my colleagues thought I'd fall prey to the same old nine-to-five routine that I'd been encouraging Mother Earth News readers to leave — but happily, that hasn't proved to be the case. Today, my husband, Jim, and I are living the kind of simple life that I had time only to write and dream about as a Mother Earth News editor. And we're doing it in the unlikely setting of a city of 250,000 people on Florida's densely populated Gulf Coast.
When I first arrived in the land of opulent condos and mushrooming mobile home parks, I was pretty wet behind the ears and loaded with the usual misconceptions about this much-maligned state. Jim, patient fellow that he is, took me under his spousal wing and immediately began my education in urban homesteading, Florida-style. He had moved into his modest urban bungalow eight years earlier and had single-handedly turned the rather plain little spread into a veritable oasis. The backyard, once a sandy, sun-scorched parking area (complete with broken concrete chips and layers of coquina shells), had been transformed into two large organic gardens partially shaded by citrus trees. Jim had replaced the crabgrass 'lawn' with heat-resistant St. Augustine turf and softened the stark outlines of the house by planting a colorful landscape of native tropicals.
Inside the bungalow, he had laid new kitchen linoleum ... installed ceiling fans ... sanded and polished the once-covered wooden floors ... repaired or replaced aging windows, screens, ceilings, and doors ... and even put on a new roof — all of which, I like to think, kept him busy until I came along!
Nowadays, here on our tiny urban homestead only a block from
Tampa Bay, we come just about as close to self-reliance as is
possible in a city. The two original gardens have been joined by an
herb plot, grapevines, two wildly productive fig trees, and three
varieties of Florida apple trees (which are actually imports from
Israel). We have a small banana grove in the side yard . . . and
maverick papayas pop up from time to time all over the
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