The ABCs of Homesteading: T is for Tools

Reader Contribution by Tasha Greer
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Hi all!  If you’ve been following my ABCs of homesteading series here on Mother Earth News, then you know I love using the alphabet to write about homesteading stuff.  We’ve worked our way through Asceticism, Borrowing, and Creativity, Ducks, Edible Landscaping, Fodder, Goats, Horticulture, Income, Jack of All Trades, Kitchen Skills, Legal Considerations, Meat, Mushrooms, Nutrition Management, Organic and Beyond, Ponds and Preparedness, Quiet Reflection, Responsibility, and Seeds, Storage, and Spice

That brings us to this post “T is for Tools”. Personally, I am a low-tech homesteader. I do as much by hand, without electricity or fossil fuels, as possible. But there are still some tools I use routinely that make my life easier and our homestead operate better.  

I bet you already guessed that I am about to give you the A-Z rundown on all the tools I have found beneficial for gardening, livestock care, food preparation, and more. Before I do though, let me give you a little advice on homestead tool selection from my own experience.

Hard Costs

Every tool you own comes with all sorts of costs. There are the obvious costs such as to buy, maintain, and operate your tools.  Then there are the more difficult to calculate costs like your time in caring for your tools and space storing them when not in use.

Psychic Costs

If you go a layer deeper, then you get to all the psychic costs of having tools. If you become dependent on a tool for your homestead activities, then you may start to worry about what would happen if you didn’t have it. That happened to me when I started heating half my greenhouse.

I realized how dependent my plants were on that heat. So, then I had to buy a back-up heater in case something happened to my primary heater or all my tropical edible plants would die. I do that with brooder lamps and bulbs too. Having two of the things I rely on is the only way I can minimize those endless “what if” thoughts that come with tool dependence.  

If you buy a tool and don’t use it, then you must bear the burden of being wasteful. For anyone focused on greater self-sufficiency, that feeling of having wasted anything is as palpable as a punch in the gut. For me, the best thing to do when I realize I made an unnecessary tool purchase is to use the gift economy to find that under-utilized tool a new owner who will use it.

Don’t be a Tool!

Of course, the best way not to be a tool when buying tools you don’t need is… to not buy them! Or at least take time to really consider whether you need that tool before you take the leap.

Very few things are urgent on the homestead. Urgent stuff tends to be matters of life and death, and for that, you either have the tools already or you don’t. Most of the other things we feel a sense of urgency about are driven by wants or fears.

Wants, believe it or not, do subside quite quickly if you ignore them. Fears, too, quiet the more capable you become of doing things with fewer and fewer tools. Owning more tools, by contrast, just make you more worried about how you’d live with out them.

So, if you really think you need a new tool, put it on your calendar a month from now.  Then, don’t research it and try not to think about it until that future date.

Trust me, if you sit at your computer reading reviews and watching all the ways other people use those tools, you’ll just want it more.  But if you give it a rest, most of the time you realize you already have something else that works just fine to do the job. Or, you’ll find a better method and are glad you didn’t waste your money.

ABCs of Homesteading Revisited

Now that you are primed not to rush out and buy everything on my homestead tool list, I am going to give you the list. These things work for me in my environment. They may or may not be right for you.

If you happen to feel the compulsion to buy something after reading this list, go back to your ABCs of homesteading.  

  1. Take an ascetic approach and try to minimize your tool dependence.
  2. Check around and see if you can borrow it from someone else before you buy.
  3. If you can’t borrow it, then get creative with stuff you already have before committing to a new tool you may not need.

If you still feel like it’s something you need, put it on your calendar and decide a month from now!

My Favorite Homestead Tools

A: Actively Aerated Compost Tea (AACT)

I bought myself a big hydroponic pump and filled a clean trash can with chlorine free water. Then, I put in a large compost tea bag full of vermicompost in the water, threw in some blackstrap molasses and feather meal for good measure, and aerated the mix for 3 days.

B: Backpack Sprayer

After that, I used a backpack sprayer to apply that aerated compost tea, and all the beneficial organisms generated through that process, on all my perennial plants and in my vegetable garden.

Now, AACT is not a one-time deal. You must apply this stuff to plant leaves and soil at least once a month in warm weather (and preferably more often).  I spray about ½ acre of plants and it takes several hours each time. But it’s a whole lot easier than dealing with all the fungal pathogens and pests here in my Southern climate.

C: Cast Iron Skillet

I do 90% of my cooking in a single cast iron skillet. I usually don’t even have to wash it so that saves me work on doing dishes. We also have a couple extra deep cast iron pans with lids for making bread and stews. 

D: Drums (55-Gallon or Larger)

We use 55-gallon drums for tons of stuff. Metal drums are used to scald pigs and store feed. Plastic drums catch rain from our rooftops, hold livestock water, act as heat sinks our greenhouse, help water our garden, and more.

E: Electric Mill

We were lucky enough to have someone give us an electric mill. We use it to grind all sorts of wheat grains. It also works great on corn which is extremely easy to grow but hard to crack and grind manually.  

I don’t know that I would have spent the money to buy an electric mill if we hadn’t lucked into one.  But now that we use it all the time, we would likely replace it if necessary.  

F: Fencing

I am not a fan of electric netting because our land is heavily sloped and full of briars. However, electric wire, step in posts, and appropriately powered chargers are a great tool for rotational grazing just about anywhere.

Pest prevention fencing around orchards and gardens is also an excellent tool to keep from having all your hard work be eaten by deer or dug up by your pet dog.

G: Greenhouse

I used to consider my greenhouse a waste of money. But then I built a few compost piles inside it, added some black drums of water, and got those heaters I mentioned earlier. That raised it to a USDA zone 9-10 climate year-round.

Now, I grow all sorts of exotic and expensive (to buy) spices and fruits not suited to my native climate. We also have a wood fired hot tub and a seating area in there.  So, we use that greenhouse as an extension of our indoor living area all winter long.

Instead of streaming videos, we soak and garden! The benefits to our mental and physical health and our food supply are astounding.

H: Heated Box

You’d be surprised how many cool things you can do with a heated box. We use ours for fermenting stuff.  You can use it to start plants. It works great as an emergency brooder.  You can make cheese and yogurt. It can even work as a dehydrator for some things.

All you need is a bottomless wooden box with a hinged lid. Then you install a lighting fixture such as fluorescent tube lights or a light fixture. You can change the amount of heat by using different bulbs or adjusting the distance of the light from whatever is inside.

I: Internet

I have reservations about spending too much time on the internet. I read that it has a carbon footprint greater than air travel and maybe on par with concrete. But there is no denying that it is an invaluable tool on the homestead. With just a few keystrokes, I can find possible answers to just about any challenge I have.

The key with this homestead tool, though, is to limit my time online and try to figure things out on my own first. If I jump on for every question, then I don’t use my own reasoning capacity and I don’t experiment. That leads to boredom and me being a dumdum. (And those things often lead to me buying stuff I don’t need!)

J: Jacket

I get most of my clothes second hand from thrift stores. However, a heavy duty, good condition farm jacket is hard to find. So, that’s one tool I consider essential enough to buy brand new. My current Carhart canvas jacket is several years old and even withstands goat nibbling.

K: Knives

I never thought about knives so much until I started homesteading.  The number of things I chop up to preserve, prepare from scratch, and occasionally process is astounding.  Without a good knife, I’d have carpal tunnel by now.

Get the best knives you can afford and have them professionally sharpened as needed. Then, also do your own steeling and sharpening at home to keep them in shape between professional tune ups.

L: Landscape Tools

We have a few scythes that we use to mow our meadowish lawns at certain times of the year. We also use scythes to keep certain native plants from seeding and spreading int our domesticated planting areas.  

I depend on my metal wheelbarrow with an indestructible tire to move mulch, gravel, compost, firewood, etc.  Plus, I keep two off all the standard landscape tools like shovels, pitch forks, rakes, pruners, loppers, hand saws, hoes, hand rakes and trowels.

M: Mushroom Inoculation Tools

You can inoculate 100 shiitake logs a year without an angle grinder, inoculation stand, and a spawn plunger. But I wouldm’t want to! These tools save days of work. They also save our backs and limbs from repetitive use injuries.

N: Net on a Pole

I raise ducks, chickens, and occasionally turkeys. It’s been a long time since I’ve needed to use a net to catch or rescue any of them. But, early on in my homesteading career there were a times when having a long-handled net was invaluable. Plus, you can use it when fishing.

O: Organic Soil Amendments

Probably the homesteading tool we’ve spent the most on is all sorts of organic soil amendments.  We’ve brought in compost, leaf mold, mulch, straw, and more by the dump truck loads to build soil where there was none. 

There is nothing so satisfying of having a fresh load of something good for the soil dropped in your driveway. I have never once regretted spending the amount I used to pay for groceries to buy bulk compost and grow my own.  

P: Power Tools

We don’t use a lot of power tools. But there are a few that make projects a lot easier.  Our chainsaw is indispensable for keeping the tulip poplar from taking over our cleared area and staying stocked up on firewood. We keep three electric drills charged and ready for action. We also have some saws for woodworking that we use often.

Q: Quad ATV

Early on as we were setting up our homestead, my dad got a little quad ATV. I hated it because it was so loud. But it was helpful for hauling things on our hilly landscape. It was also fun for city dwelling guests who came to visit. I don’t use one anymore.  But it played an important role early on when we were doing a lot of heavy material moving.  

R: Rags (Lots of Them)

Old clothes make great rags. But nothing beats those pre-hemmed rags they sell in large quantities for cheap. They’re often made from re-claimed t-shirts or terry cloth. I literally use them until they start to disintegrate and then I compost them.

Look for the 100% kind. That way you aren’t adding microplastics to your gray water or septic system each time you run them through the wash.

S: Slicer and Salad Spinner

My partner, Matt, bakes all our bread.  We also make our own bacon and other meat products. Using an electric slicer makes our homemade products as easy to use as commercially produced stuff. So, it’s never a hardship to make a sandwich or slice a country ham prosciutto thin for family gatherings.

A salad spinner is also critical if you are growing a come and cut lettuce patch for daily salads. Get the good quality pump kind instead of the hand cranks. They’re easier to use and tend to last longer.

T: Tall Work Boots

When you are processing pigs in 45? weather and wind, keeping your feet warm and dry is key to comfort. With water sloshing over the sides of the scalding vessel, low boots just won’t offer much protection. Or if you have torrential rains for months and your mud is 6 inches deep and sloshing with every step, tall boots are a necessity. 

It can cost $150 for a good pair of knee tall work boots. I wait for sales or use a coupon to cut costs. Plus, I consider all the times I won’t have to crank the heat up in my house just because  my feet got frozen outside. High quality, tall work boots with plenty of room for thick socks are a worthwhile winter essential for me.

U: Utility Buckets

I have an endless assortment of utility buckets.  The majority are the 5-gallon type that you get from the hardware store.  Many are the heavy-duty BPA free feed buckets you get from the farm supply store. Then, there are all the freebies you can get from restaurants. Plus, there are the galvanized styles for more decorative uses.

I have never regretted bringing a new utility bucket home. I only regret when I leave them in the sun too long and the plastic rims start chipping.  Keep the lower quality hardware buckets and freebies out direct sunlight for longer life.

V: Vermicompost Bins and Beds

I have several vermicompost bins and beds all over our property. I feed them just about everything I can, from livestock bedding to kitchen scraps, to weeds, paper products, and more because they make the most amazing compost of all.  

You don’t need fancy bins. But you do need to spend on some red wrigglers to get started. Plus, you need to give them a suitable, safe space to do their good work. You may need to buy a tote or build a bed frame to protect them.

W: Weed Trimmer

I don’t use a lawnmower. But I do love my battery powered weed trimmer. I use it to cut weeds to the soil level every few days until they die. If you do that in hot, dry weather, even the worst weeds eventually give up the ghost. And you never have to use weed killer.

X: X Marks the Spot

I keep lots of black markers on hand to write on jars, plant markers, meat packages, and more. (OK, this one is a stretch for the letter X, but markers are really a must have for me).

Y: Yard Stakes (or Garden Stakes)

These are endlessly useful for staking plants, marking out new planting areas, protecting young shrubs, and more. If you live near a vineyard, you can often get their old stakes for free. They often cut them off at the soil, so an 8 foot stake becomes a 6 foot stake.  But that’s tall enough for most yard applications.

Even if you have to buy these though, it’s good to have them around. You can even use them to make quick arbors in just a few minutes.

Z: Zip Ties

Zip ties save the day in so many situations. Now these are plastic. Even the UV protected ties break down when exposed to sun for a long time.  So, don’t use them for everything or you’ll have little bits of broken zip ties all over your homestead…forever. Or worse, they’ll biodegrade in your soil.

Conclusion

There is no question that well-chosen tools make homesteading easier. But I’ll warn you 90% of the stuff that seemed so important when I first started homesteading was a complete waste of money and time. And when I blew it, I did it big time… the wood chipper we spend more time fixing than using, the movable coop that broke in a few weeks on our unlevel land, the 100 foot chicken netting and solar charger that couldn’t keep a chicken in, much less a predator out, and more!

Take your time choosing tools and weigh all the costs, even the psychic ones, before you commit to new tool dependence.


Tasha Greer spent several years homesteading and gardening in a suburban home in Maryland before moving to a nearly 10-acre rural paradise in North Carolina in 2014. Together with her partner Matt Miles, she raises goats, poultry, worms, and maintains an extensive edible landscape. For an up-to-date list of Tasha’s current works visit her here.

52 HOMESTEAD SKILLS

Packed with skills such as making deodorant, building a chicken chunnel, and freezing jam, the 52 projects in this book will prove helpful to any homesteader (or anyone just looking to do more on their own). Life on a homestead might not always be easy, but as Bastien writes, “The learning never ends, and that’s OK. Because life without a challenge would be boring.” This book will help you through even the hardest parts of living on a homestead, and add a little bit of fun to the mix!

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