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Foraging for Plantain

Wed, 01/19/2022 - 16:58

Children pick these leaves out of the lawn in idle fidgeting. The plants crowd edges of streets and sidewalks. Counselors fashioned tiny boats from them at summer camp — with an acorn cap as hull and the omnipresent leaves for sails. They’re at your doorstop, the edges of your garden, and in the park.

The commonplace appearance of this plant has made it all but invisible. Yet it is an abundant food more nutritious than spinach, easier to grow than lettuce, tough-as-nails in any growing environment, medicinally useful, and as a non-native species, impossible to overharvest.

There is probably no wild edible more ubiquitous than the one I want to share with you today, but I guarantee at least some of you have no idea what it is called.

Do you recognize this plant? I bet you do. I spent years of my life walking all over it without knowing.

wren everett // insteading

But I’ll tell you now. It is the lowly, humble, under noticed plantain. The members of the Plantago genus are everywhere, and offer many gifts.

Finding and Identifying Plantain

First off, we have to clear up some terms. The low growing herb that is the featured plant of this article is very different from the starchy, tropical, cooking banana that is (inexplicably) also called plantain. I have not been able to discover why these disparate plants were given the same title — if anyone has a clue, drop it in the comments below.

Plantain (the herb) is a plant that is common across Europe and Asia, and used widely in the associated medical traditions of those regions. It made its way to the United States along with colonialization. Though it’s not clear if it was planted intentionally or carried along in the droppings of livestock that were lugged across the pond, once it arrived, it was here to stay. Several Native American nations named this new-found plant “White Man’s Footprint” in a testament to its ubiquity.

Hard-packed soil? No problem, says plantain.

In the modern day, finding plantain is a cinch. It has spread across the United States in their entirety, growing from east to west coast, and from the frosty north all the way to the humid south. Needless to say, you can’t overharvest it. It grows readily in any disturbed soil it can find, and it isn’t picky about location or soil compaction, either. Shade, sun, fluffy loam, or hard-packed clay; plantain will happily set up camp and grow lush and green. You can easily find it in the garden in the spring and summer, or alongside any foot trail year round. It’s an evergreen perennial, too. In my Zone 6 homestead, there are plantain rosettes scattered across my land throughout the winter. I don’t disturb them then, though. They’re not actively growing, and they’ll provide a lot better harvest once spring weather gives them the go-ahead to grow again.

There are two main species of plantain that you are likely to encounter.

Broadleaf Plantain (Plantago major)Broadleaf plantain with green flower spikes

Probably the most common and widespread is Plantago major, or broadleaf plantain. It bears broad, leathery-feeling leaves that grow in a basal rosette. They are simple, untoothed, and can vary widely in size, from an inch long and wide to leaves bigger than my hand. Notably, for members of the species, the veins in the leaves are parallel. The base of the petiole often has a wine-red color that fades to green by the time it gets to the leaf proper. And notably, the leaves and stems are lined with distinctive, white, string-like veins that stretch when the leaf tissue is ripped apart (a great key identification feature).

The Maroon petiole and those distinctive, string-like veins!

From April to October, the flowers grow in underwhelming, nubby green spikes that shoot out from the center of the rosette. They’re commonly seen as a symptom of an unmowed lawn rather than a flower in their own right.

English Plantain (Plantago lanceolata)English Plantain and it’s not-that-ugly flowers

Plantago lanceolata, sometimes called English plantain, ribwort plantain, or narrow leaf plantain, grows in the same regions and with the same tenacity. On my land, the two species grow side-by-side, spoiling me for the choicest leaves.

Like broadleaf plantain, they grow as basal rosettes of leaves. Also similar are those distinctive, parallel veins and long petioles. Unlike broadleaf, English plantain is a bit hairy in both appearance and texture.

Wren Everett // Insteading

English plantain flowers are different than broadleaf plantain. They grow at the end of a long, green flower stalk, topped with a brownish, cotton swab-like head and ringed with tiny, white flowerets that bloom from April to October. They’re easy to overlook, but when viewed up close, I contend they have their own subtle beauty.

Plantain Look-Alikes

If you are new to foraging and have only begun building up your knowledge of plants and their traits, it is possible you could confuse plantain leaves with different species of domesticated lilies. Most lilies are toxic and should not be consumed, and plantain does have a passing resemblance to them when neither are flowering. Lilies notably lack the fibrous strings that are so distinctive to the Plantago genus, and a novice may not be aware of them. As I have said many times, and in our Ground Rules For Foraging Safely video, if you don’t have complete confidence in a plant’s identity, you’re not ready to eat it yet.

So, if you feel that you don’t have a good grasp of identifying plantain by the leaf alone this season, wait until the plants bloom. The underwhelming blossoms are a surefire way to distinguish plantain from any of the showy blossoms of the lily family. Take plantain’s long growing season to get to know and identify it in many settings, and you’ll be ready to harvest it at any point.

Harvesting Plantain

As you have already read, plantain has a knack for growing where little else wants to grow. It can often be found at the edges of sidewalk, paths, bike trails, and pretty much anywhere that feet have trodden the earth hard. As such, plantain is often growing in places that are awash with the toxins, pollutants, and poisons that we humans tend to leave on the ground in our high-traffic areas.

When you go out to harvest plantain, you should steer clear of the plants growing directly alongside high-traffic urban areas. It’s too likely for them to be contaminated. It’s far safer to pluck the perfect leaves rising freely in your backyard or in an abandoned field.

pass this one growing in the cracks at the parking lot

Flea beetles and their relatives like to nibble tiny holes in plantain leaves through the summer. It doesn’t affect the quality of the leaves if there are a few holes, but older leaves might be positively Swiss-cheesed. Thankfully, it’s such a prolific grower that you can still get fresh leaves from the center of the rosette in such cases.

wren everett // insteading

Now all that said, once you find plants good to pick (that shouldn’t be hard) you’ll have a wide array of kitchen possibilities open up to you. Let’s head to the kitchen and have some fun.

Cooking and Using Plantain

You can eat plantain as freely as you would kale or spinach, and with many of the same health benefits. Flavor-wise, it is mild, not bitter, green and vegetal, and somewhat unobtrusive to the palate. Some foraging books say that the young leaves have a lemony flavor, but I have never experienced this, so if you expect the same bright tang of a wood sorrel leaf when you chomp on a young plantain leaf, you’ll be disappointed. Likewise, a plate of boiled, unseasoned plantain leaves won’t wow anyone at the dinner table. But instead of seeing this as a detriment, think of the greens as a healthy, blank palette to spice up at your whim.

If you’re a fan of green juices or green smoothies, plantain is happy to become the cost-effective alternative to your pricey organic kale or wheatgrass. Just blend it or juice it, and mix it with fruit juice as you would other greens, and enjoy the health benefits.

Plantain leaves taste good sauteed like kale or spinach, but they will turn a somewhat drab, olive-green color when heated. Blend them with other greens or bright red peppers, and the dish will look livelier.

Many wild food cookbooks will say that you should only use the young leaves because they are more tender, but I honestly don’t listen to that. Instead, I pick leaves of all sizes and shapes and development. If you cut off the tough, wine-stained stem, then slice the leaves perpendicular to their thread-filled veins, they are all easy enough to chew.

wren everett // insteading

Now, if you would like a whole article worth of ideas on how to use plantain leaves, head on over to our earlier video/article on some inspiring ways to use wild greens. Plantain fits perfectly into any of the recipes listed there.

For a particularly plantain-perfect preparation, however, I have to add one more idea. Plantain leaves make absolutely excellent kale — er, plantain chips. I prefer them 100% to kale chips, as their veiny structure becomes a boon, rather than a detriment during the cooking process, and helps holds the leaves together. Plantain chips are melt-in-your-mouth crispy once completely cooked, and leaves of any size can be used. Here’s an easy recipe online — honestly, any kale chip recipe works.

Finally, plantain can be dried and used as a base for a wild tea as well. On its own, it’s a little vegetal tasting, but when combined with red clover blossoms, blackberry leaf, and wild bergamot, it’s particularly nice and offers balance. We’ll have a full article on wild tea blends soon, so keep an eye out for that.

Medicinal Uses of Plantain

Though we are largely ignorant of plantain’s identity nowadays, it wasn’t always so. About four generations back, it was well known as a healing herb in the United States. But you can go even further back and find it mentioned as a healing plant in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliette (Act 1, Scene 2, for those interested). Plantain has been so widely studied in the past that it was placed on the U.S. government list of herbs that were labeled GRAS: Generally Recognized as Safe.

Now, before I go on, I suppose I’ll have to emphasize that, as with all online health advice, take my recommendations for what they are — tips from a stranger. You need to do research for yourself before depending on them. All the same, there are some notable uses for plantain that make it a bit of an on-the-go medicine chest for those who know how to use it.

Stomach Issues

Many folks have actually consumed plantain weed as an OTC treatment, but have no idea they have. The main ingredient in Metamucil is the seed of a cultivated variety of plantain, P. psyllium. The seeds of any plantain, however, can be used for their mucilaginous and mildly laxative properties. Strangely enough, a tea made from the leaves is astringent and has the opposite effect — it was used in the past as a mild anti-diarrheal.

Insect Bites & Stings

Now aside from stirring the seeds into orange juice, probably the most common first-aid use of plantain is as a field poultice for insect stings. If you’ve run into the unfriendly end of a wasp, yellow jacket, or bee, plantain is probably waiting at your feet, ready to offer up its leaves. Merely find two clean leaves, chew one into a gooey mess, spit it out onto the other leaf, and apply to the sting for relief. You would be surprised how much ouch this spit-poultice can soothe. I imagine this is due to plantain’s ability to draw out material when applied to the skin. Herbalists have used it to draw infection out of a wound, venom from a bite, even splinters from deep within the skin.

Wounds & Cuts

Old plant names often give clues to how they were historically used … and how they might still be used today. Plantain was once referred to as soldier’s herb, a nod to its past use as a wound-treatment on the battle field. The Omaha Indian Nation was known to crush the leaves in oil and apply the mixture to wounds to prevent scarring. You can also make an ointment in a similar tradition by infusing plantain leaves in oil and blending your own healing salve. We’ve got a whole article on the process over at Insteading, if you’re interested.

Happy Foraging

Now with all that shared, I hope I have given you a good introduction to this under noticed plant, as well as cultivated a desire to know it better. I can’t think of any better send off than this perfectly appropriate quote from herbalist Rosemary Gladstar.

“For anything to be this common, nutritious, safe, and effective, not to mention free for the picking, it truly is a gift to humankind. If Plantain put on a fancy name, donned an exotic blossom, and hailed from anywhere other than our own backyards and empty fields, we’d call it a super food, extol its virtues, and put a hefty price tag on it.”

I hope when you see this “weed” springing up around you, you are able to greet it as friend and aid, and not as an annoyance. I’ll be out there with you, plucking, drying, and eating plantain with gusto and gratefulness.

Sources:
Missouri Wildflowers, Edgar Denison
Herbal Folk Medicine, Thomas Broken Bear Squier
Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide, Rosemary Gladstar
Thirty Plants That Can Save Your Life, Douglas Schar





Homestead Stories: Orchids That Look Like Birds

Fri, 01/14/2022 - 15:00

I love my orchids. I have all shapes, sizes, and colors of orchids, and I know there are a lot more to consider adding to my collection. I’ve written about the more common orchids and I’ve written about some of the more unusual orchids. However, I think I’m most intrigued by the orchids that look like birds. There’s the moth orchid, the dove orchid, and (my favorite so far) the white egret orchid that really does look like an egret in flight. Mother nature has outdone herself with these orchids.

With 800 known genera, over 25,000 individual species, and 100,000 known hybrids and cultivars, orchids (which belong to the Orchidaceae family) make up one of the most diverse groups of flowering plants in the world. Orchids are definitely the largest group of flowering plants. They are found everywhere. Well, just about — as they can’t survive the climate in Antarctica. Therefore, it’s not surprising to find some orchids that appear unique in their shape, size, and color — even looking like birds. These are the orchids that intrigue me the most.

Here’s a few for you to consider, while I decide which ones to add to my orchid collection.

Moth Orchid (Phalaenopsis)Virginia McMillan // Flickr

This is probably the most common orchid. It’s sold almost anywhere and is prolific in indoor garden collections. With wide, flat, dark leaves, mostly positioned opposite to each other, Phalaenopsis sport tall stems of flowers with wide, flat petals. These flowers can last up to three months, sometimes longer. I know mine are prolific for months before going into a dormant stage.

The name moth orchid is interesting. When first observed, the naturalist who found them in their native habitat in Southeast Asia was looking at the flowers through his field glasses. He mistook the orchids to be a group of moths because of their large white petals. Of course, these moth orchids come in a wide variety of colors, but the initial sighting was of white moth orchids.

Duck Orchid (Caleana major)Boaz Ng // flickr

This is an interesting name for an orchid whose flower actually looks like a flying duck. Sadly, this orchid can only be grown in Australia. It has nothing to do with one’s ability to duplicate the growing environment in order to bring an outdoor plant indoors. The problem is quite simple: There is a special kind of fungus specific to Australia, and this orchid needs the fungus to survive. Symbiotically, the fungus needs the flower of the Caleana major. The orchid needs the fungus and the fungus needs the orchid.

The duck orchid grows to about 20 inches in height and supports a single reddish, narrow leaf (about five inches long), often with spots at the base of the leaf. A thin steam supports up to five flowers, also a shiny, reddish-brown, though there are rare instances where the flower is greenish with dark spots. With a labellum (less than an inch in length) which resembles the head of the duck on a thin neck, and the column with broad wings, the appearance reminds one of a duck. There are sites that offer for sale the flying duck orchid bulbs, but remember, this is a symbiotic plant that will only survive in a special ecosystem found in Australia.

Dove Orchid (Peristeria elata)John D. // flickr

Native to Panama (their national flower), Venezuela and Ecuador, this orchid is considered rare. It was given the name Peristeria after the Greek word for dove. The flower has the appearance of a dove descending from heaven, hence the other names: Holy Ghost orchid or flower of the Holy Spirit (flor del Espiritu Santo). It’s quite tall, with 3-foot spikes supporting 4-foot elongated leaves (usually four) and 1½-inch cup-shaped flowers, with the dove figure appearing in the center. The base of the bulb produces 4 to 12 flowers, all a pure white color with purple spots and yellow anther and pistil. The flower has a strong fragrance very similar to that of beer, and with its thick, waxy petals, these flowers last a long time.

The good thing is that the dove orchid is easy to grow. Pot it in a moist peat, moss-based soil in 4-inch pots. When the plant flowers, give it more water, specifically at the roots.

White Egret Orchid (Habenaria radiata)TokyoViews // flickr

As the name suggests, the white egret orchid is a very elegant and beautiful orchid. This orchid is native to Japan, Korea, and Russia and earned its name because it does look like a white, snowy egret in flight. Its feathery fringed flower petals add another level of elegance, earning it one of its many names: fringed orchid. Its Japanese name, sagisō, comes from its allocation as the official flower of Setagaya Ward of Tokyo.

The white egret orchid is a hardy orchid, found in wetlands and bogs, preferring full sun or part shade. It also does well in pots, so it can be a welcome and fascinating addition to one’s indoor orchid collection — which is a good thing because it’s an endangered orchid in its natural environment. It grows up to 12 inches in height with very large, 1½-inch wide flowers. It’s a late bloomer, but once it does, it’s prolific, often with more than 12 white blossoms on one flower spike. And, it blooms for weeks.

Bird’s Mouth Orchid (Orthoceras strictum)Saxon Vinkovic // Wikimedia Commons

The Orthoceras strictum orchid is native to New Zealand, Australia, and New Caledonia. Listed as a rare and endangered species in Tasmania, this orchid grows well in a wide range of environments including mallee scrub and shrublands, heaths, and open grassy forests. Like most orchids, it grows 2 to 5 straight leaves from the base of the plant and it can produce up to nine flowers at a time.

The flowers, yellowish-green to brown and sometimes black in color, have a central oval, hooded over tiny petals. The overall appearance of the flower suggests a baby bird with its mouth open anticipating feeding time. Hence the name, bird’s mouth orchid.

Western Bearded Greenhood Orchid (Pterostylis barbata)Gnangarra // Wikimedia commons

Another treasure of Australia, this orchid is simply labeled as a bird orchid, and it certainly lives up to its name. The single translucent white flower with dark green veins is also known as a bearded orchid due to its labellum which is just under an inch in length and feather-like with a few yellow, thread-like branches giving it the appearance of a beard. With a rosette of leaves at the base of the plant and up to 20 stem leaves, every stem supports one flower. In profile, this single flower looks like a bird ready to take flight.

And I’m sure there are more bird-shaped orchids. There are certainly other anomalies seen in orchid flowers: monkeys, lions, bees, and even ghosts. All we need is a little imagination and we can see almost anything in the shape of the flower, if we look more closely. Mother Nature enjoys playing around with her treasures.

So which one do I add to my collection? That is a tough decision. I’d have to say the white egret orchid is the most graceful and would definitely be a good conversation piece — I do like to talk about my orchids. The dove orchid would also be unique. Hmm! Decisions. I suppose the bottom line is which one can I import from the other side of the world and successfully integrate into my indoor orchid sanctuary. If you could choose any of the bird orchids, which one would it be?

What Is Spilanthes?

Wed, 01/12/2022 - 17:28

Would you like to cultivate unique species in your garden that serve dual functions? Do you have toothaches and pains? Fungus infections? Are you in need of enhancing your digestion or immunity? Or are maybe just curious about plants that can serve these purposes?

This probably sounds like an advertisement — but if you answered yes to any of the above questions, I have just the plant for you. Spilanthes!

阿橋 HQ // Flickr

Spilanthes, also known by the common names of eyeball plant, toothache plant, or buzz buttons, is an herbaceous plant that is originally native to the tropics but has since been cultivated throughout the world. The common names for this species are reflective of its characteristics (when it is flowering, it can resemble an eyeball). Likewise, this plant has a unique property that makes your mouth go numb and buzz when the flower buds are chewed. 

Spilanthes Uses and Benefits

Historically, spilanthes was used to help cure pains associated with toothaches. It was as simple as plucking a fresh flower off the plant, chewing it up, and BAM! The toothache was cured. Originally, spilanthes was primarily used for this purpose, but as time went on, it was discovered that spilanthes had additional healing properties.

Here are some of the many

Antimicrobial/antiseptic

Both help to kill microorganisms, prevent their growth and reproduction. Microorganisms are typically responsible for sicknesses and general feelings of unwellness.

Antioxidant

In case you didn’t know (and I didn’t) antioxidants are substances that protect cells against free radicals, which can influence the development of diseases and cancer. Free radical molecules are produced when your body breaks down unhealthy food or when exposed to tobacco smoke or radiation.

Anti-inflammatory

Spilanthes helps inhibit inflammatory responses by inhibiting signaling pathways in the brain that produce swelling.

Pain-Relieving

When chewed, spilanthes release a local anesthetic effect that causes numbing. This occurs due to spilanthol, which is the plant’s main active ingredient, hence the name. Spilanthes also contains flavonoids which help reduce prostaglandins which can interfere with your perception of pain.

In addition to the above list, spilanthes is also antibacterial, antifungal, antiparasitic, and immune-boosting.

With these new discoveries, the following uses had positive results.

  • Maintain oral health
  • Decrease oral and throat pain
  • Support digestion
  • Fungus and ringworm infection treatment
  • Combat skin aging
  • Increase urine output and water intake
  • Decrease swelling
  • Improve lung function
  • Improve wound healing
  • Prevent infections, viruses, and diseases

For most uses, the plant is orally ingested. However, some make topical compresses or mixtures and incorporate into a bath instead. As with most plant medicines, these documented properties and uses have not been approved or recommended by the CDC but try it out for yourself, and you’ll quickly find out how powerful this plant is.

Ventilago // FlickrWhy Try Spilanthes?

If the list of “pros and pros” didn’t pique your curiosity for this plant, maybe the story of my first exposure will. 

I was visiting a friend on a small organic homestead in rural New York. She pointed out a small herbaceous plant with yellow, cone-shaped flower heads. She picked 3 or 4 of the flowers, popped them in her mouth, and started chewing them, all while ecstatically exclaiming to me that this plant was named spilanthes and was a powerful antibacterial. 

I followed her lead, and started chewing up one flower head myself. The next thing I knew, my mouth was profusely watering, buzzing with an odd sensation, and going numb. She didn’t tell me about this side effect, and I was beginning to panic, thinking I was having an allergic reaction — and a severe one at that! Panic-stricken, I told her what was happening, and she laughed hysterically, said it was totally normal — and part of the reason she loved it so much. 

Forest and Kim Starr // Flickr

Truly though, it’s very good for you. I worked on a farm months later that cultivated spilanthes and ate a flower head or two every time I was around them. I felt it truly helped improve my health. 

Do make sure that you are not allergic and do it responsibly!

How Do You Identify Spilanthes?

This plant has opposite triangle/diamond-shaped leaves with mildly serrated edges. They grow on green stalks that turn slightly red with maturity. The identifying characteristic of this plant is the flower heads, which when young, resemble yellow daisies. With age, the flower head develops into an inch-long olive shape. The top of the flower head often is the only part that isn’t yellow — with a circle shape that’s darker red and gives it the appearance of an eye. 

Jayesh Pail // FlickrHow Can You Grow and Harvest Spilanthes for Yourself?

Growing this lovely plant is pretty easy, as its general needs are full to partial sun, cultivated about 10 to 12 inches apart, with moderately moist soil. Overly moist soil will create poor development and stem rot issues, so this is something to keep in mind.

I have personally seen this plant grow from rural New York to southern Florida — so it is capable of existing in a wide variety of climates, but it will do best in a warmer environment, and flower in the heat. 

Spilanthes is not particularly picky about the soil type either. This is an easy and fun medicinal herb to cultivate. If you want to purchase seeds, you may be able to find them in your local do-it/grow-it yourself outdoor shops, but this isn’t guaranteed. You may have better luck ordering online, and here is a link where you can do so.

Harvesting spilanthes is straightforward as well. It’s as simple as snapping off the flower head with clean fingers or harvesting tools. A little stem included is fine and won’t hurt to ingest. You can eat it fresh, or you may leave it out in a clean area for a few days, occasionally turning the flower heads to dry them.

I dried a bundle nearly a year ago, and it keeps quite well if stored in a clean, dry place. The effect seems about the same with numbing and buzzing in your mouth. Though, I do notice fresh flower heads seem to be more potent. 

There are also ways to make oil out of them, but we won’t be going into that here. You can order spilanthes oil online, and here is where you can find it.

Traditional Lawns: Their Environmental Harm & Practical Replacements

Wed, 01/05/2022 - 17:36

Lawns, as we know them, have held their landscaping tyranny over our yards for far too long. Backed by out-of-touch homeowners associations (HOAs), zoning requirements, cultural expectations, and longstanding history of conformity, lawns have kept too many of us out spraying, mowing, reseeding, and weeding for no good reason. It’s time for a change.

If you don’t want to spend any more Saturday mornings nursing wasteful strips of artificially-maintained grass, you don’t have to anymore. And if you think those unused areas of featureless green would be better used growing something other than grass (like native plants for the original habitat) you’re not alone. A garden should be allowable in a front yard, even if it’s not the norm for your patch of suburbia. More power to you!

There’s actually a huge range of options out there when you decide to break with the green grass goose-step. Let’s talk about it.

Anyone up for a lawn covered with oregano instead of grass?The Origin of Traditional American Lawns

Most, if not all of us, grew up with grass spaces available wherever we looked. Even if we lived in a tiny urban lot or an apartment complex, our schools, churches, and businesses were all hemmed in with surprisingly large areas of carefully trimmed and fertilized vegetation. It was so ubiquitous and expected that most of us hardly noticed it at all. But where did this tradition originate?

Well, lawns started out as a status symbol, and they’ve been holding that dubious rank since they were first carved out of the fields around castles. Back then, there was at least some strategic advantage to them. It’s pretty hard to have your army sneak up on an enemy stronghold when it’s surrounded by acres of carefully-trimmed plants rather than a shadowy forest.

In peaceful times, the meticulously cut acres surrounding a home were a public declaration of wealth. In an age without lawn mowers and gasoline, the only way to keep the turf trim was by employing scores of subservient, scythe-wielding serfs (say that five times fast) to do what amounted to pointless work.

For the common folk, lawns were public grazing areas kept trim by willing herds of sheep and cattle. It’s where we get the term “launde” which is an Old English word meaning glade or barren area. You certainly couldn’t brag about monetary accumulations as the lords did — the animal manure was the dead giveaway — but there was probably no denying the pleasure of strolling unimpeded across a gently rolling hill.

Fast forward to the New World, and the lawn continued to be held as a status symbol. Thomas Jefferson famously developed them around his Monticello estate, and the trend continued to spread. When America started developing and modernizing its cities, the inevitable train of suburbs sprawled out from them, and with them came that perfectly-trimmed, and bright green space of grass. Depending on your opinion, you can thank or gripe at Abraham Levitt and his sons for embedding an immaculate green, weedless, carpet of turf into the white picket fence psyche of the past six decades or so. He was a key part of pioneering the suburban conformity we still uphold.

In our modern day, keeping up with the Joneses and their perfect patch of fescue has become the middle-class attempt to pretend to be the old fancy lords (whom they probably don’t realize they are emulating). Lawns are a booming business. In 2020 alone the industry raked in 10.5 billion to keep those largely useless patches of green as lush as possible. Turf grass is the most widely-grown “crop” in the United States, covering more than 40 million acres of land. In a darkly funny case of history repeating itself, plenty of folks are still following the same actions of those serfs from the middle ages, expending time and resources to pointlessly care for plants that neither feed nor house them.

But we’ve taken it much further. In addition to spraying scores of pesticides and fertilizers to keep that freakily verdant grass bright no matter what the weather, the U.S. now uses one-third or more of their available freshwater to care for lawns.

I want to repeat that fact…at least one-third of our drinkable water isn’t used to grow food, water livestock, or give thirsty people a drink. It is used to water non-native, nonfood swathes of grass that are chemically forced to stay a monoculture and cropped weekly by gas-guzzling machines. All to preserve a status symbol. In volume, that translates to nearly 3 trillion (yes, that’s trillion, with a T) gallons of water a year.

Photo by Daniel Barnes on Unsplash

As you may expect, many environmental activists, so-called “experts,” and eco-conscious journalists have sounded the alarm that it’s time to abolish the lawn in its entirety; referring to them as “ecological dead spaces” and declaring that we need to replace them with native species or else we’re “in big trouble.” But for the purposes of this article, I have a different approach.

I don’t want to get rid of the lawn, and I hope this article doesn’t come off as another guilt-ridden judgment on the hapless public. I just want to get rid of unused areas of artificially maintained and pesticide-sprayed grass, and offer some options. Because the truth is, if you do have a lawn, however big or small, you have a space of dirt that is chock-full of exciting potential. And being motivated by the thrill of a new endeavor is a better force than being motivated by guilt.

So if you feel done with the expense and waste of the useless grass-growing game, there’s a world of choices available. Let’s take some scenarios, case-by-case, and see which one may work best for you.

Kids and Pets-Safe Home Lawns

I find that the ecological conversations surrounding the abolition of yards are often devoid of a very crucial question — where are the kids supposed to play and safely enjoy the outdoors? Where are the dogs supposed to stretch out in the sun with their bellies to the sky? Where are the families supposed to make a cozy backyard campfire, filling the air with laughter and stories? What’s the use of having some magical eco-backyard full of native perfection and indigenous shrubs if no one can enjoy it?

So let’s get to two simple tips that make sense. First, stop spraying your backyard. Are you able to let go of the bragging rights of an Astroturf-like space of uninterrupted green? Eventually, other plants will start to populate the area. Clover will sneak in, dandelions will raise their sunny little heads, and henbit will decorate the margins. Less chemicals in your world means healthier soil, healthier water, and much, much healthier little bare feet.

Second, mow less frequently. Over frequent mowing interrupts the natural growth cycle of grass, resulting in stunted root systems that can’t deal with drought or flooding nearly as well as they should. And if you do have to replant, use grasses native to your area — look at this comparison between root systems!

Low Maintenance Home Lawns

Some of us want to spend our precious days doing something other than landscaping. Or, some of us may have to deal with chronic pain, increasing age, or the care of something more important than our turf. For these folks, I’d like to recommend checking out our earlier article on alternative ground covers. Though some of them will need a bit of effort to get established, once in place, the plants in our list require no mowing.

Wildlife Habitats Home Lawns

The National Wildlife Fund offers certification for yards that want to be converted into Certified Wildlife Habitats and gives plenty of great information on how to do it.

The Audubon Society offers a similar program to folks wanting to get their backyards certified as habitats. You’ll have to do some research to find your own local program.

Garden Space Home Lawns

As ridiculous as these decrees sound to folks who want to grow their own food, dealing with the threat of fines may be a turnoff to those trying to change turf into tomatoes. There are several ways to approach this.

For the devil-may-care crowd, I suggest putting in a garden in the best, sunniest spot you have on your property. Some say it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission. Fence it in, if necessary, to keep it safe from curious sidewalk kids (sometimes they do steal hot peppers for dares). Do a really good job, and make it beautiful. If you feel extra bold, deliver a small basket of pretty tomatoes to the head of your HOA to confuse them. And if you find that you need to fight this fight to grow your own food, there are plenty of stalwart folks with dirt on their hands who have gone before you.

For those looking to fly a little more under the radar, try edible landscaping (and check out our earlier article on the topic here). Or hide a garden in plain sight. Who says your window boxes can’t have a full palette of kitchen herbs? Would anyone fight you over the beauty of some flowering burgundy okra or red garnet amaranth, gracefully towering over some multi-colored, bright lights Swiss chard, with the purple pom-poms of onion flowers nodding in agreement? Train cucumbers to climb up the patio and surround the mailbox with the beautiful foliage of sweet potato vines. Most passers-by would think you’d landscaped with some really exotic plantings.

This Red Garnet AmarantH Almost looks too pretty to eat!

For those looking to be more covert, plant fruit trees and native edible shrubs in your front yard. To the botanically illiterate, they’ll look like they’re just another planting of some random bush-thing, but you know that they’re full of future good eating. Investigate if your state offers native, bare-root seedlings — sometimes, these plants cost less than a dollar each when sold from nurseries maintained by departments of conservation.

You know that low, boggy area of the yard that always turns into a brown, grass-killing puddle every time it rains? Stop fighting it. It’s begging to be converted to a rain garden, a mini-wetland that soaks up runoff like a sponge can be populated with gorgeous native plants, and it will save you money on reseeding.

You know how you’ve spent so long with that sprinkler system or hose, trying to keep your poor, drought-stricken yard from succumbing to the same dry weather every summer brings? Stop fighting it. Maybe your area’s climate was never designed to support that non-native grass. Find out what wants to grow there no matter the rainfall (giving your state’s department of conservation a call will point you in the right direction) and see about replanting with species that can handle drought like champs. Try researching the term “xeriscapes” and you’ll be amazed by the varieties that can fill a dry yard that doesn’t naturally support grass.

Do you know that shady area that always seems to end up sparse and patchy? Stop trying to plant species that need full sun there … like grass. Instead, a shade garden could be a much better fit. Check out our earlier article on plants that were made to thrive in the shade, and bring a bit of the secretly beautiful forest understory to your growing patch of paradise.

Many species of moss Have no qualms with growing in the shade

I could go on, but you see the point. If grass isn’t working for some reason, why keep trying to make it work?

Growing Your Own Food on Your Land

I offer you the book “Food Not Lawns” available for free here. Written by folks who originally worked with the “Food Not Bombs” program, you may correctly guess that this book is not only about growing a garden where grass once stood. With a heady mix of community building, anarchistic anti-war sentiment, seed saving, and food growing information, you’ll probably find a lot to consider, a bit to disagree with, and plenty of information to help you play a part in changing and unifying your local neighborhood.

No Land, No Problem

Just because you’re living in an apartment complex doesn’t mean that you’re doomed to sit on your gardening hands. If there’s a useless lawn somewhere in your weekly route, see if you can give it purpose. Contact the church groundskeeper, the university’s chief of landscaping, or the janitor at work. See if there’s some way you could turn it into something useful. It’s likely you’re going to hear the word “no” quite a bit. But there is a chance someone could give you the go-ahead to start an unlikely garden or fill the area with native flowers that don’t need as much maintenance. You won’t know until you ask. Just be sure to back up your request with the gumption to get it done.

And at the very least, see if there’s a community garden in your area. Or, find out if you can garden in that abandoned lot — some cities offer programs supporting such efforts. In many cases, community gardens, abandoned lots-turned-paradises, and other such inspiring locations get started because one bold, motivated person asked “Why not here, now? And why not me to do it?”

How Businesses and Public Centers Can Use Their Lawn Space

It’s time to change the perceptions of corporate perfection that is based on having that perfect carpet of green with the “don’t walk on the grass” sign posted menacingly by the parking lot. Let folks walk on the grass. Let the apartment dwelling employees or the local 4-H club, cultivate a garden in the corner. Turn that boggy spot into a native plant-filled wetland again, instead of installing yet another one of those fenced-in, sterile drainage ponds ringed with concrete. If you run a food pantry, consider how much more influential and nutritious your work would be if you offered fresh food from your actively used acreage.

Let a corner be transformed back into a meadow, complete with explanatory signs patting yourself on the back for being nice to nature. Most businesses have a landscaper or hire out a team already, so it’s not like you’d be adding something new — but you’d certainly be making something different.

Whatever you choose, try to do something better than making that boring old turf the continued norm. It will make your establishment interesting and give the local news something positive to chatter about for once.


How To Build A Fish Farming Pond

Mon, 01/03/2022 - 17:20

Fish farming is an old agricultural method that modern homesteaders can use today. A great source of continuous protein, freshwater fish farms allow anyone to grow a different variety of fish that can be used for personal consumption.

While it may be hard work to get started, building a fish farm can be rewarding, fun, and can really pay off in the long run when you may not have a lot of money to spend on food. It could also be a good income source if you have other people around you who are in need of additional food.

If you like the taste of seafood and you’re thinking about building your own fish farm, then here are some expert tips on how to build a fish pond that you can use for homesteading. Let’s get started.

A fish farm in Point Edward, Ontario. Photo by Loozrboy via Flickr/Creative CommonsPond Building Preparation

Don’t break ground on your pond until you answer a few key questions.

Decide Which Fish To Farm

Before you begin working out the location of your fish farm you first need to consider three main things.

  • The type of fish that you’re looking to grow.
  • The size the fish can grow when they’re in adult form.
  • How many you’re looking to grow.

You want to make sure the pond size can handle the type of fish you’re going to be growing. You don’t want to grow fish that are too large for the pond size only to find out you’re running out of room.

Select A Suitable Location

When building a fish farm in your backyard or on your property, it will need to be positioned in an appropriate place to ensure the best growth and health of the fish. Some key things to remember when finding a suitable location is:

  • The ground level should be low and flat (however earthmoving and excavation work can help to level the ground easily).
  • The pond should be positioned in a place where it can easily collect natural rain water or run off. This helps to keep the water fresh and from becoming stale which can harm the health of your fish.
  • Will there a barrier between the pond and your children? You don’t want to position your fish farm close to you home as it does pose a drowning hazard for young children.
  • If the area is exposed to extreme heat or cold, you need to make sure the area that you’re going to dig can be dug between 8-12ft to ensure the fish can find enough shelter during these extreme temperature changes. A pond that is shaded by trees is also ideal however you run the risk of digging into large root systems.

In taking these things into consideration you’ll be able to determine a good location that is suitable for your pond to be positioned.

Plan The Dig Site

When you’ve decided on an area, it’s also a good idea to draw sketches and map it out to the exact measurements and dimensions. This can be done with spray paint on the ground.

Mapping out your pond will help you visualise it better and to determine the correct size of the pond ready for digging. If you don’t have spray paint you can use ropes or a garden hose. The final layout of the pond site ready for digging should include:

  • The elimination of any gas pipes, electric lines, water pipes or sewerage lines that are buried below the ground.
  • Any plant roots from large trees that may compromise the pond later if they begin to grow again. If you’re planning to dig next to a tree, make sure the root system next to the pond is well taken care of to stop problems occurring later with your pond.

By preplanning your dig site, you need consider all these things to ensure you don’t run into a lot of trouble when you’re digging the hole.

Building Your Fish Farm Pond

With prep-work complete, you’re ready to break ground. Here’s our recommended process.

Digging Your Fish Farm Pond

Depending on the size of your fish farm pond, you will either need:

  • A large shovel, a lot of energy and a lot of time to commit to the hard work or;
  • A bobcat or excavator that can handle digging up the area and the size of the pond.

Unless you have a team of strong-backed people willing to work for free, digging your pond with a Bobcat or other excavator is the best way to get the job done quickly. Here’s our tips and process for digging a fish pond with an excavator.

  • Avoid digging at the top of the hole on a downward slope. This can cause your machinery to tip forward with the weight.
  • When digging the hole, dig at depths of 16 inches at a time on the outer edges and place the dirt in a pile out of the way—at the back or side of the pond.
  • When you’ve reached the center, start to dig deeper as this will help to create an even slope in your fish pond if you ever need to walk in it for some reason. It will also help you drive the excavator in and out of the pond easier.
  • Continue to stop and measure the depth of the pond to make sure it’s the right level of deepness that you’re hoping to achieve.
  • Take care when digging. If you rush the digging process you may find that your pond won’t be even.
  • To make the edges look more defined when complete, dig around the outer edge with a shovel to level it better.

In taking these tips into consideration you will be able to dig your fish pond more successfully without too much trouble.

Lining The Hole So It’s Ready For Water

Once the hole is dug you may need to line it with a rubber liner or tarp. This tarp or liner needs to be compatible with fish ponds to reduce poisoning from any chemical residue left on other types of tarps from the treatment process. Before you lay your large tarp down however you will first need to add a layer of sand across the surface area of the hole ready for the tarp to reduce tears. You can use a rake to level out the sand.

Once this is done it’s a good idea to place some geotextile fabric to help protect the rubber liner or tarp from being damaged. The reason why a tarp is required to layer the fish pond is because it helps to reduce the water from seeping out into the surrounding land. Otherwise you may have to continue to fill it up constantly.

It is possible to seal ponds without liners, which is a more sustainable option and much cheaper than buying pond liners, but depends on your soil type and the clay content of your soil. There are vendors who sell sodium bentonite clay as a pond sealer that you can purchase to help seal ponds, too.

There may also be sustainable versions to traditional pond liners that are worth researching, though they can be difficult to find. It’s possible to make polyethelene with ethanol-based plastics rather than fossil-fuel based plastic. In theory those should be slightly more sustainable than traditional pond liners.

When placing your rubber liner or tarp into the base of the pond it’s a good idea to unfold it from the center. Depending on how large your hole is you may need a few large pieces of tarp to ensure the entire area is covered successfully.

Filling The Pond With Water

To ensure the liner stays in place when the pond is being filled you can place a decent sized stone in the centre. This helps to prevent the tarp lifting and floating while minimal water is in the pond.

Filling up your pond may take a while depending on the size. It’s a good ideal to let the water run into it from the side as this will also help the tarp to conform slowly to the weight of the water. You should also place some stones around the outer edge of the tarp to help prevent it from falling in as the weight of the water increases.

Once the pond is full, the weight of the water will help to keep it in place. Then you can then setup your pump system (if applicable).

If you’re not planning to use a pump system, then you can work on introducing your fish. However, don’t forget that fish do need to have some oxygenated water to live and grow healthy. You can provide them with oxygen by placing a running hose in the pond 2-3 times a week for 15-30 minute intervals.

Introducing Your Fish To The Pond

When introducing your fish to the fish pond it’s a good idea to first let the water and any dirt residue to settle. Once ready, slowly begin to mix the pond water into the bucket water that you have your fish in for 10 minutes, this will help them acclimatize to the new water PH levels.

Once you have mixed the water and waited, slowly tip the fish into the pond. The less stressed your fish are when introducing them into the pond, the more of them will survive the process.

Don’t add all your fish at once. Start off with a small amount of fish. If most of them live for the first two weeks then introduce more.

If they all die within the first week, there’s something wrong with your water which needs to be addressed. One area that may need checking is the PH level. Some fish require a set PH level to survive in. If the PH level is still within range, you may need to ask a fish expert on what might be the problem.


Fish farming is a great way to provide you and your family with a sustainable food source. As your fish breed, you will find that you’ll have more than enough food to last for years. As the first month goes on, continually check on your fish and see whether you can improve any part of the pond. This will help you to keep your fish pond running well for a long time.

So, are you ready to build your own fish farm or pond ready for your homesteading lifestyle? If you have any questions, leave them in the comments.

The author of this post, George Hanson, has worked in the earthmoving industry for the past 20 years. He’s worked on both large and small projects and enjoys living off the land he owns. He works for EVM Australia and hopes to open his own earthmoving company in the future.

Different Types of Firewood To Use & To Avoid

Wed, 12/29/2021 - 17:12

It’s that time of year again! The birds are heading south, and the hearth fires are ablaze. Having a campfire out under the stars on a chilly night is one thing. Trying to heat your home with a wood stove or fireplace is quite another. 

Have you ever been around a fire when the wood starts snapping and crackling, followed by little bits of burning embers flying all over the place? That was likely horse chestnut. While ALL wood burn, it doesn’t all burn the same way. This is why it’s best to get to know your wood.

Let’s get into it. 

Wood You Shouldn’t Burn Indoors

The smell of pine and cedar wood burning is incredible — at least I think so. While it may burn well, it should never be an option you choose for burning in an indoor fireplace or wood-burning stove. 

Softwood and resinous wood should be avoided. For one, softwood doesn’t burn very well, but more importantly, resinous wood contains oil and resin that can gum up your chimney pipes. Pine, for example, has a deliciously scented sap and it’s excellent for starting a fire. However, that resin will ultimately burn hot, and it’s not worth risking anyone’s safety inside. Pine pitch is prized by survivalists and preppers because it’s so useful for fires.

  • Pine
  • Birch
  • Cedar
  • Aspen
  • Eucalyptus 

One more thing about softwood (before I move on) is that it burns relatively quickly, leaves little to no coals, and creates a lot of smoke (leading to soot). In the long run, softwood is not worth it. Tossing a few pieces of softwood into the fireplace or wood stove is okay, but I’d try not to make it a habit.

The Best Firewood for Warmth

Now we’re getting to the good stuff. If you plan on heating your home with wood, you might want to be sure you’ve got one or two of the following varieties to stack in your woodpile

AshPhoto by Kirsty TG on Unsplash

Ash produces a steady flame with a really lovely heat output. It is one of the wood varieties that can be burned while it is still green (if you must). Otherwise, it’s best that it gets stacked and allowed around six months to season before use.

BeechJan Tichý // Flickr

Beech burns best when it’s fully dry, much like many other wood varieties. It produces a steady flame with a good output of heat.

Hawthorn

Hawthorn is incredible for those long, cold winter nights. This wood variety burns hot and slow.

Honey LocustDan Keck // flickr

Honey locust trees are riddled with thorns, but if you can get past their first line of defense, you’ll have some excellent firewood. It’s dense and burns long and hot.

Rowan

Similar to hawthorn, it provides a long-lasting burn with good heat output. This variety of wood burns slow, making another excellent choice for nighttime.

Yew

This wood has an incredibly slow burn time with a super-high heat output. It’s excellent for large homes or very cold weather.

The Next Best Thing

Don’t get me wrong, there is a wide variety of wood that can be burned to keep your home, shed, or space warm. Much like anything, some things are better suited than others.

OakRené Vlak // flickr

Red and white oak are heavy hardwood trees. They produce small flames and burn relatively slowly. After a couple of years left to properly season, oak is at its best.

Pear and Plum

There is a world full of opinions when it comes to firewood. While some feel as though pear and plum wood produce significant heat, others find it to be “okay.” Regardless, well-seasoned pear and plum wood provide a decent amount of heat.

MapleJim Choate // flickr

I would much rather tap a maple tree for the sweet syrup than to cut it to burn. However, nature takes its own course sometimes, and we end up with fallen trees. Maple produces a good flame, steady heat, and burns reasonably well. 

LilacJason Woodhead // flickr

It may be more of a shrub than a tree, but lilac still has some bits of wood. I’d rather see it living and in full bloom, but things happen. That being said, the dead twigs and branches of lilac make incredible kindling and tinder. The seasoned wood burns reasonably well, so it’s an option.

HazelwoodOdd Wellies // flickr

Hazelwood burns fast and hot. It isn’t something you’d want to burn overnight; otherwise, you’d be up often to add more wood. Hazelwood is an excellent choice to get the stove roaring for the long cold nights. Let some coals build up and toss in a chunk of slow-burning wood.

CherryKatsujiro Maekawa // flickr

Cherry wood smells fantastic. It has a decent output of heat with a slow, steady burn.

Hardwoods Or Softwoods?

Again, there are many types of wood that are an excellent source of heat and cook wood. I could quickly end up with a book, so I chopped the list to some of my favorites.

The high density of plant cells found in hardwoods is the reason these types of wood burn so hot. It’s also why they tend to create less smoke than softwood species. Hardwoods also burn a bit longer than softwood as well. Hardwoods such as: Oak, almond, ash, apple, cherry, birch, dogwood, and maple produce less smoke than other varieties. Aspen, elm, basswood, and elm are hardwood varieties that generate more smoke.

Firewood Smokiness

I mention the smoking aspect because if you’re burning the wood indoors you should know what to expect. Whether you’re using a fireplace or a wood stove, the wood will smoke the same. Opening the wood stove door to a cloud of smoke can be a surprise. Adjusting the flue will help but when there’s excess smoke it tends to linger in the oven. 

If you don’t know how to identify trees and use a wood stove or heat source, investing in a pocket guide may be a good idea. Remember, all wood burns; it just doesn’t burn the same. In a survival situation, I’d say burn it if it burns, but it’s crucial to pay attention to the fire and the amount of soot that collects. If you only have resinous wood, your pipes will need some extra TLC to keep the pipes and building from catching on fire. Remember, there are several ways to source free firewood. There are many people that will let you have the wood for free if you cut it and haul it yourself.

Happy & Safe Burning!

I hope you and your loved ones have a safe, healthy, and happy winter season. And if you use wood to heat, have a beautiful stack by your side. Being able to harvest wood from your property can save you money, and you’ll want to make sure you replant what’s been taken in order to be ready for the many winters to come.

Please learn what you can about the type of wood you’re burning. The resin produced from some can lead to a fire in your pipes. If you purchase your wood from someone else, don’t be shy. Ask them questions about the wood so you have the inside scoop. Beware of scammers, I’ve seen some shady businesses where people toss in whatever wood they have around and that doesn’t always end well. Stay safe and warm out there y’all!

17 DIY Christmas Tree Decoration Ideas

Wed, 12/22/2021 - 17:32

The holidays are a season of giving, so why not give back to the earth (and your wallet) by skipping out on the revolving door of disposable Christmas decor? 

Instead, try your hand at reusing the things you already have lying around the house, and create a beautiful, DIY Christmas tree decoration. You can adorn a tree in lovely homemade ornaments knowing you’re doing your part to protect the planet.

Important Details to Consider When Making Christmas Tree Decorations

Before you jump into your Christmas tree decoration DIY, you need a plan that ensures success. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

Christmas Tree Decoration Type

Are you going for a colorful, kid-friendly tree with lots of novelty? Or maybe something a little more “shabby chic?” 

The theme you choose will influence the type of DIY Christmas tree decorations you want to create. 

For example, colorful T-shirt pom-poms and salt dough handprint ornaments are ideal for a family memories theme. 

At the same time, felt coffee cups and ugly Christmas sweaters are darling for a passionate crafter to showcase their skills with a glue gun.

Choose crafts that work together to create a theme for the ultimate homemade holiday aesthetic. 

Types of Materials Used

Get creative with sourcing your materials! 

  • Junk drawers
  • Garden shed 
  • Garage
  • Craft box 

You may be surprised by how many bits and baubles you have lying around, waiting for the chance to be repurposed into a DIY decoration for Christmas tree enthusiasts. 

Start a box of possible supplies and keep it in an easily accessible spot. Every time you come across something you think shows promise for your crafting, toss it in the bin. 

Then, when you’re ready to get your hands dirty with hot glue and glitter, you don’t have to waste time hunting down materials. 

Tree Size and Placement

DIY Christmas tree decoration ideas need somewhere to hang out once you’re all done breathing life into them.

When it comes to size, a good rule of thumb is choosing a tree at least 6 inches shorter than your ceiling, topper included. Most homes have 8- to 9-foot ceilings, so a 7- to 7½-foot tree would leave plenty of clearance even with a 12-inch angel on top. 

Once you’ve picked a size, you need to find a spot to set up. First, don’t be afraid to rearrange the space to accommodate your tree. It should be the centerpiece in your home. Display it prominently. 

That said, avoid placing it in front of windows. In the winter, we’re desperately short on daylight hours, so choose a spot for your tree that allows all that gorgeous, natural light to shine through.

Of course, keep it away from radiators, fireplaces, or any other heat sources that might create a hazard. 

Other Considerations

Ask elderly loved ones or busy best friends if they’d be willing to let you organize their garage, attic, or craft room in exchange for you snagging some of the cast-off supplies gathering dust. 

Not only will you make someone’s day, but you’ll also avoid spending any extra green on trimming your tree. 

Free DIY Christmas Tree Decoration Ideas to Consider

Need a little inspiration to get started? Try out these 17 DIY Christmas tree decoration ideas.

Salt Dough Ornaments

You can create these adorable ornaments with just three ingredients and a little imagination. 

Whip up a batch of hard-drying salt dough with all-purpose flour, table salt, and water, then roll it out like cookie dough. Cut out shapes with cookie cutters, punch a hole in the top for your hanging ribbon, bake, and decorate.

Find the plan at Sugar Dish MeT-Shirt Pom-Pomsphoto courtesy of nola wedlake

Before you haul off your next donation to the local thrift store, keep back a few of your favorite T-shirts for these darling little baubles. 

All you need is a scissor, index card, and a little twine to fill a tree with fluffed pom poms in a full spectrum of colors. 

If you have some glitter or sequins, consider adding sparkle for an extra special touch. 

Find the plan at Nola WedlakeCinnamon Stick Bundlesphoto courtesy of consider the peel

Who knew that adding a little glitter and some jute twine to a bundle of cinnamon sticks could be so charming?

Any avid baker is sure to have a few bags of cinnamon sticks tucked away in a cabinet, but if you’re all out, swap them for a few sturdy twigs instead. 

Find the plan at Consider the PeelGlittering Pine Conesphoto courtesy of the spruce crafts

This ornament is an ultra rustic, effortless DIY Christmas tree decoration. 

Recruit your little ones to get all bundled up, then squirrel around in the yard finding the best and biggest pine cones. If you’re brave enough, you could even let them pour the glitter as a special treat for doing such an outstanding job.

Find the plan at The Spruce CraftsLightbulb Snowmanphoto courtesy of always the holidays

Next time a light bulb burns out, wrap it safely in a sock or soft cloth, and then tuck it away somewhere safe for this charming upcycled snowman decor.

The best part is that this little guy looks professionally made, but in reality, it’s as easy as putting down a few coats of paint and cutting up a scrap of felt. Spend some time digging through your fabric scraps and choose some of the cutest designs to mix up the snowman’s winter gear.

Find the plan at Always the HolidaysHot Cocoa Felt Ornamentphoto courtesy of flamingo toes

Is there anything better than snuggling up with a cup of hot cocoa, a Christmas cookie, and your favorite holiday movie?

Bring all that coziness to your Christmas tree with a hand-stitched mug complete with marshmallow friends. It’s an easy beginner project for older kids to learn basic sewing techniques, like cutting patterns and making a whip stitch.

Find the plan at Flamingo ToesRustic DIY Reindeer Christmas Tree Decorationphoto courtesy of DIY n crafts

Repurposed wood is a traditional craft material, and these reindeer pals give you an excuse for getting rid of smaller logs you might have cluttering up the woodpile. 

If you’re hesitant to fire up the chainsaw, you can chat with your local lumberyard or woodworking hobbyists in the neighborhood about taking scraps off their hands.

Find the plan at DIY N CraftsMason Jar Ring Mapphoto courtesy of Happy Mothering

Thanks to our smartphones, there are plenty of long-forgotten maps tucked into glove boxes and trunks just waiting to be recycled into Christmas ornaments.

These are unique gifts for a loved one who lives out of state. Send them one with your location (and you hang on to one with their city featured). Even when you can’t share the holidays in person, you’ll always have a little bit of long-distance love on the Christmas tree.

Find the plan at Happy MotheringFelt Coffee Cup Ornamentsphoto courtesy of Amy Latta Creations

Prefer a cuppa joe over a mug of cocoa? You won’t have to feel guilty about using this disposable coffee cup because you’ll pull it out year after year from your Christmas storage boxes. 

This ornament is even more accessible than the hot cocoa one. You can skip the stitching and hot glue everything together.

Find the plan at Amy Latta Creations Cookie Cutter Ornaments

When it’s time to retire those beloved cookie cutters, you don’t have to condemn them to life in your little one’s play kitchen or in a heap at the local landfill. 

Instead, show them the love they deserve for their years of faithful service with a super easy DIY decoration that can help you get rid of some leftover scrapbook paper.

Find the plan at It All Started With PaintChristmas Tree Decoration DIY Ribbon Garlandphoto courtesy of the DIY mommy

Jazz up your Christmas evergreen by skipping the tinsel and swapping rolls of wide ribbon. You can use this idea for a striped tree as a DIY outdoor Christmas decoration. Just wrap it around the tree to create a festive look. 

You’ll want to use a wired variety, as it gives you better control of the draping and helps keep the ribbon tucked between the branches.

Find the plan at The DIY MommyScrabble Letter Ornaments

Dig out the Scrabble game from the bottom of the cupboard and reuse the letters to spell out seasonal messages. 

Once you’ve nailed that triple letter score, it’s time to add a dash of jolly. This outdoor DIY Christmas tree decoration offers many options. You can dress them up with scrapbook stickers, add dainty bows, or create horizontal hangers with button-and-felt mistletoe.

Find the plan at Happiness Is HomemadeRustic Twig Ornamentsphoto courtesy of the DIY dreamer

Turn your yard of twigs into a blizzard of snowflakes or a smattering of stars. 

These homespun ornaments are as natural (and inexpensive) as it gets, so they’re perfect for a “cozy cabin” Christmas theme, especially when combined with other rustic DIY Christmas tree decorations like the reindeer woodcuts or glittering cinnamon stick bundles.

Find the plan at The DIY DreamerUgly Christmas Sweaters Ornaments

Take your love for ugly Christmas sweaters beyond the wardrobe and into your holiday interior design. 

You can make hangers out of craft wire or paper clips, then deck out the front of felt sweaters with any knick-knacks you have hiding in drawers. 

In case you don’t have any mini jingle bells or tiny string lights tucked away somewhere, get creative with a scissor, and create the tacky sweater of your dreams.

Find the plan at Crafts By AmandaPaper Candlesphoto courtesy of the house that lars built

As pretty as it would be, hanging lit candles on a Christmas tree is a recipe for disaster. But, with some metallic cupcake liners, thick paper, and a dash of glitter, you can get that cozy feeling without risking a house fire. 

Don’t worry about making a craft store run for special clips. Use mini clothespins, binder clips, or even small snap barrettes to secure faux, flameless candles to your Douglas Fir.

Find the plan at The House That Lars BuiltDried Orange Slice Garlandphoto courtesy of dear lillie studio

The dried citrus garland is a traditional holiday decoration dating back to Germany in the 1600s. 

It’s easy to understand why it’s still going strong when you experience that dreamy citrus scent wafting through your home, or see the light sparkling through the stained glass — like slices of a Cara Cara or Seville. 

This garland is a straightforward idea that makes a huge impact.

Find the plan at Dear Lillie StudioDIY Christmas Tree Door Decorationphoto courtesy of simplicity in the south

Spread the cheer before your guests even step inside your upcycled winter wonderland with a Christmas bulb door hanger.

It’s a sustainable way to repurpose old bulbs that may have lost a bit of their luster, or to give a sneak preview of your interior design.

Find the plan at Simplicity In The South

6 Reasons To Raise Sheep

Mon, 12/20/2021 - 17:01

My parents raised sheep for several years when I was a kid. They were my favorite of the animals we experimented raising on our hobby farm.

Dani Mettler  / Flickr (Creative Commons)

Watching the sheep give birth was absolutely amazing and the baby lambs made the most adorable pets! My siblings, friends, and I also got a lot of entertainment attempting to ride the sheep-like horses—we never were very successful.

My Dad was the main one involved with the caring of the sheep, and I can recall him shearing the sheep himself. It always was hilarious watching him struggle to hold the sheep in place as he cursed and the sheep bleated.

There came a day when he announced that he was ready to sell the sheep. They were too much work for him. He worked a full-time job, cared for many large vegetable gardens, and had 5 kids!

Not wanting to see the sheep go, I volunteered to be their caretaker. This meant hauling five-gallon buckets of water from our house to the shed every day in the winter, not to mention feeding them their corn and hay.

Summer was easier, except for dealing with all of the barn spiders that would appear in the shed (especially for a girl with major arachnophobia). My dad eventually sold the sheep and gave me part of the profit, which was completely unexpected and very rewarding for me.

Now that I am an adult with children of my own I would love nothing more than to raise some sheep. Unfortunately, we’ll need to buy more land before we can have sheep. When that time comes, I’ll be likely raising sheep for some or all of the following reasons.

1. Sheep Wool Is Warm And Sought-After

In today’s world of synthetic materials, you’d be surprised to learn just how much wool is still used, and is, in fact making a comeback! Wool is used for clothing, bedding, furniture, even insulation for houses.

According to Good Shepherd Wool, a provider and installer of wool insulation, wool is a superior fiber for insulating. It is naturally flame-resistant, non-carcinogenic, it helps absorb toxins from your home, it is recyclable, sustainable, is a natural sound blocker, and has many other benefits.

Here in Minnesota, you can sell your wool to a local mill for about $1 per pound or $10 per fleece. You can plan on shearing for sure, once in the spring. It is important to keep the wool very clean if you plan on selling it. You can also sell your raw wool for money on Etsy or to local customers that have a use for it.

2. Sheep Meat Is Underrated

As much as I love sheep, you may be surprised that I have eaten their meat! Their meat is delicious and definitely underrated.

Some sheep raisers sell certified meat directly to local customers via local farmers markets, online, or to restaurants. Sellers may also go to a slaughterhouse or retail market.

Lamb sells for more than mutton. I purchased a pound of lamb stew meat for about $8 at our farmer’s market. It was amazing in a homemade stew. Raising sheep for your own table is a smart way to have economic, organic, super local, meat.

3. Sheep Provide Nutritious Milk

Among sheep milk’s many nutritional benefits: Double the calcium of cow milk, and high levels of vitamins, particularly, vitamin C, B, thiamin, riboflavin, and B-12. These vitamins help the body’s immune system and nervous system.

Sheep milk is a staple in other parts of the world. It is used to make cheeses, such as ricotta, feta, and Roquefort. Sheep milk has more solids in it than cow milk and thus its milk yields more cheese per fluid ounce. Yogurt can also be produced from the milk.

If you are considering raising sheep for their milk then you will need to get one of the dairy breeds. They produce twice as much milk as the nondairy breeds. Some of the dairy breeds include East Friesian and the Lacaune. They can produce up to 1,000 lbs of milk annually!

4. Sheep Breeding Can Be Lucrative

Perhaps you just want to raise and sell sheep for their genetics. This can actually be quite profitable. The main factor you must focus on when selling sheep for this purpose is health. Traits such as milk production, fertility, feed efficiency, and mothering ability are also important.

Your sheep must be very healthy especially if you want to export them to other countries. This is a growing market. Each country has different standards for sheep health. Certain diseases are deal-breakers such as scrapie.

There may be a demand for certain types of sheep where you live, ask around!

5. Sheep Are Natural Lawn MowersKatriona McCarthy / Flickr (Creative Commons)

Tired of mowing your lawn all the time? Let sheep do it for you! You will save time and money!

You can even rent your sheep out to individuals or companies that want to have their lawn mowed the eco-friendly way. Not only will they keep your grass short, they will fertilize it as well. Some golf courses have actually done this!

You can hire people to bring goats to your home or business to clear unwanted brush and vegetation. It’s only a matter of time I’m sure, before sheep are offered as well for their grazing abilities—which are superior to goats when it comes to grasses.

6. Sheep Make Friendly Pets

If you aren’t a dog or cat person, you might be a sheep person! They are friendly, adorable, low-maintenance pets. A miniature sheep would help a child learn responsibility, and they could even get involved with 4-H.

When it comes to raising sheep, there are so many possibilities. I can’t wait to start raising sheep. In the meantime, I dream of homemade sheep milk cheese and yogurt!

Melissa Hartner lives with her family in Minnesota on a half-acre homestead.

8 Mistakes to Avoid as a New Homesteader

Fri, 12/17/2021 - 17:17

If you’re a new homesteader on new land, you’re in an interesting place.

You’ve probably just left everything in the city, your job, your friends, your family, your inherited way of life, to start over in the country. And, like earlier generations of back-to-the-landers, you may not really know what you are doing, have had no childhood training to bank on, and have relatively new “book knowledge” to guide you.

Photo by Roger Darnell on Unsplash

You’re going to make mistakes. You’re also going to watch other new homesteaders make mistakes, all based on your unfamiliar environments and unsteady choices. As you may soon understand, experience is a hard, very truthful teacher.

But once you have years of homesteading under your belt, and your neighbors have accepted you — and no longer refer to you as the “new arrivals” (other folks who have already come and gone will have received that dubious title) — you’ll look back on the past and see your initial, wobbly steps a little more clearly. You’ll wish you would have known then what you know now.

That said, I’d like to list the top eight new-homesteader mistakes that you might make, in hope this list full of advice and cautionary tales can help other greenhorns avoid some pitfalls that became obvious in retrospect.

1. Getting Too Many Animals Too Soon

I’ve read this story in several different forms, but most searingly, in a blog post from a couple of new homesteaders (I will leave the blog unnamed as a courtesy, of course). Immediately upon arriving at their run-down farm, the couple launched their livestock dreams, buying a herd of 5 bottle calves, 50 chickens, a pair of hogs, and no fewer than 10 sheep.

Never mind that they had no experience with farm animals or adequate structures prepared for them. They gleefully declared they were going to “fake it till they make it.” As you may expect, disaster soon followed their animal shopping spree. The demands of bottle-feeding calves sucked away their time while the dilapidated house desperately needed repairs. The chickens, largely fending for themselves without a strong coop, were slowly picked off by raccoons. Several of the sheep got foot rot while standing in their crammed, boggy paddock. Not sure what happened with the hogs — they never mentioned them again. All the while, this couple lamented their lot in life on their blog; claiming the hardship was burning them out, nothing was fair, and they never got a break. Eventually, a few years and many deaths later, they did get their feet under them and started caring better for the animals, but it came at quite a price.

Now, as tragic as they made the experience sound, the true tragedy was their mad rush to over-populate their farm, not knowing how to care for animals in the first place.

I know it’s the stuff of homesteader dreams to get that full passel of livestock, and envision the eggs, meat, and milk soon to fill the larder. But keeping farm animals is a different endeavor than keeping a dog or a cat, and it takes time to learn the ropes. Getting too many animals too soon is a recipe for death, disease, and disaster, guaranteed.

If you’ve never worked with livestock before, my recommendation to the homesteading newbie is to start off with a handful of chickens — somewhere around 5 to 6 hens — and nothing else. These birds will teach you the basics of animal care, feeding, and housing, and give you the chance to learn some homestead veterinary care as well. They’re inexpensive. If they get free, they’re not going to hurt anybody, they don’t require breeding to lay eggs, and the rewards are decently quick in coming.

Once you feel that chickens are no longer a huge project, and have become a part of everyday life (usually after at least a full year), I believe you can be ready to slowly expand your livestock endeavors. You’ll be a lot more ready for it!

2. Expecting Everyone Back at Home to Support and Understand You

As soon as you get off the beaten path of your peers and family, you’re likely going to go from “curiosity” to “forgotten weirdo” in surprisingly short order. Abandoning the pattern given you to live, along with the socioeconomic status and collar-color of those you once rubbed shoulders with, will not win you popularity points in the long run. You’ll have to get used to that.

To illustrate, let me point you to a curious, easy-to-gloss-over passage in the acknowledgments of “Restoration Agriculture” by Mark Shepard. For context, Shepard is a permaculture farmer and visionary who runs New Forest Farm, commercial scale, 106-acre, perennial agricultural ecosystem converted from what was formerly a dead, exhausted row crop grain farm:

“Thanks to Anna Lappe [a university presenter and activist] … an online recording of her giving a presentation to a group of college students where she mentioned New Forest Farm was the first time that I had ever heard anyone positively acknowledge the work that I have been doing [emphasis added].”

This guy had to have a thriving enterprise that was starting to attract attention from researchers, universities, and large-scale growers before he heard an encouraging word about his against-the-grain work. Plugging away at a vision and dream for years without anyone’s thumbs-up takes gallon of grit and a heck of a lot of contradictory confidence.

3. Expecting Anyone to Support and Understand You

Back-to-the-landers and their ilk have never really been well received on either side of the spectrum. Those they left behind in the city quickly forget them. And those country folk around them have seen too many homestead burnouts to immediately believe that they’ve got what it takes to succeed in their world. Get ready to feel a bit adrift for a while. It’s part of the process.

It can be tempting to start sharing your heart with the folks you meet as you potentially fight waves of loneliness. But I would advise lots of caution when it comes to sharing the guiding motivations, world views, and deep-seated rationales for your huge lifestyle change. These are precious things that you have worked hard (and probably sacrificed a lot) for. As such, only share them with folks that you have gotten to know well enough to trust. For example, you may have strong, valid opinions about free-range chickens on pasture, but if you preach at your neighbor with his crowded coop of Cornish crosses, you’re probably going to come across as an arrogant, baseless, know-it-all, and nothing will be accomplished (and a potential friendship may be lost).

Honestly, the same goes for expressing the political, religious, and philosophical reasons for why you do what you do. I’m not saying they’re not important, but you need to realize you’re already at a disadvantage as the local newcomer from the city, and it’s unlikely you’re going to find someone cut from the same cloth as you. It’s better that people know little about you, and get to know you slowly through your positive actions, than to be loaded up with a deluge of divisive factoids that will set them off without even shaking your hand.

It can feel isolating and lonely at first. Accept that. In time, as you visit farmer’s markets, talk to shopkeepers, help with community events, lend a hand to someone in need, and share extra tomatoes with your elderly neighbor, you’ll build up connections that will slowly erode away all your “newness.” And eventually, you will find someone that you can talk to.

4. Being a Crummy NeighborThis is how a stray dog has “fun” with a rabbit tractor. Bye, piles of fur formerly known as Rabbits.

As I’ve already said, folks in the country don’t trust newcomers all that easily. However, now that I’ve lived out here for quite a few years, I can attest that their hesitation about former city-folk has its merits. The best way I know how to explain this phenomenon is in a set of bullet points about country neighbor faux-pas that are easy for a newbie to make and hard to live down. I’ve paraphrased these from Jackie Clay-Atkinson’s excellent article “Homestead Burnout — What It Is and How to Avoid It.”

Don’t Let Your Dogs Run Free and Unattended

No matter how much you like them, fact is, dogs can be destructive. They can kill a neighbor’s chickens and small livestock, and most country folks don’t give dogs a second chance when they’re discovered. There are too many stray dogs dropped off in the country to fend for themselves, so a trespassing canine is often met with a shotgun, not a query of where the owner might be.

Wandering Livestock Is a Big No-No

Granted, a one-time event is not an issue — it happens to the best of us. Many folks will work together to corral your wayward sheep or cow and make sure it gets back to you. But make a habit of it by not maintaining your fences, and you’ll quickly find that folks give you the side-eye rather than a friendly hello.

Don’t Endlessly Borrow Supplies

It’s one thing to ask a knowledgeable old neighbor to teach you the ropes of an unfamiliar tool — many of them are delighted for the chance to share their wisdom. But regularly borrowing tools or using up their goods, rather than buying your own, comes off as rude and irresponsible.

Don’t Complain and Gossip About Your Neighbors

Many of these folks are related to each other. Just let them do the talking and ask questions instead. You find out what you need to know.

Don’t Trespass, Hunt, or Fish on Your Neighbor’s Land Without Permission

You will only get away with it for so long (if you do at all).

Jackie sums up neighborly behavior nicely:

“In rural areas, you are judged first by how honest you are, and second by how hard a worker you are. If you are honest with your neighbors (pay when you say you will, help when you say you will, etc.) and as they see you are working hard on your new place, you’ll slowly move up in their eyes.”

5. Not Being Willing to Accept Death

This one might come across as calloused, but I’ve noticed a strange trend in the new-to-livestock conversations online. No one is willing, ever, to say that an animal died. They’ve “passed on,” “passed away,” “stopped fighting,” or “didn’t make it.” I’ve read more heart-wrenching accounts of a chicken’s death than I can count, and while my heart goes out to those folks facing it for the first time, the level of emotional turmoil is unhealthy.

The truth is, death is inevitable on the homestead, when animals are involved. Predators have no compunctions about killing off an entire coop of “featherbabies.” Runts will die, even if you nurse them through the night. Sometimes, an animal’s suffering is so great due to illness or injury that the most kind, humane thing you can do is to put them down. And for those of us looking to raise our own meat, rather than depending on a CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) to do it for us, death is the necessary gateway between paddock and dinner plate.

I wrote a whole article on dealing with death on the homestead to explain this one further, but I’d like to supplement it with a realistic quote from long-time homesteader and writer Gene Logsdon: “We raise our farm animals with loving care, grow quite fond of them, put our lives at risk to save theirs if necessary, and then we kill and eat them.” That’s the sort of reality you’ll be dealing with.

As a subtopic, I’d like to add what I consider the mistake of naming all your animals. I know this is a touchy one, but naming animals will almost always make the killing, culling, or butchering of them more difficult.

Of course, animals do need to be individualized so that you know which one you’re talking about, but you might try referring to their color, size, or breed, instead. It doesn’t dehumanize them (they’re not humans in the first place), and it certainly doesn’t change how you treat them. But it is a lot easier, more truthful, and more mentally healthy to say “we butchered the red hen yesterday” than to shakily admit “we finally sent poor Mrs. Fluffinstuff to freezercamp.” I truly believe it’s healthier for homestead kids as well. Teach them from the get-go which of your animals are going to be meat, and don’t pad the butchering process as some faraway, mystical boogeyman. If prepared, and given the chance to ask all their questions, kids exposed to the processing of their own food develop a huge respect and understanding of the process.

6. Trusting in Everything “The Books” Say

When you don’t know anything about livestock, foraging, gardening, or homesteading, books are authorities to be studied, memorized, and trusted. But once you start living this lifestyle, you’ll come to a strange realization: Many book authors — particularly modern ones — don’t always know what they’re talking about. You’ll have to come to grips with figuring out what you trust more. Your eyes and the words of your neighbors who have done it for years, or the printed page that may or may not have had an editor who knew how to fact-check the information.

This isn’t to say that books are useless. Far from it! Lacking grandparents and a cultural background to guide you, books are a huge resource of knowledge and wisdom that we just can’t get anywhere else. But your experience will become an increasingly trustworthy guide that will help you discern when the book may not be exactly what you need to solve the personal challenges your land offers. Books often describe an accepted, conventional method that works — but as you will find out, there are many other solutions that can work just as well, or better. You may have to innovate on your own, however.

The same goes for websites, magazines, and videos online. Just because someone says it with conviction doesn’t mean that it’s the best fit for you, your animals, or your land.

7. Pedantically Expecting to Live the Same Way in the Country as You Did in the City

We have an acquaintance who was also seeking to get off the grid and bought some property near us. Watching his process has been interesting, to say the least. Absolutely disinclined to experience discomfort, he has spared no expense in buying the most expensive composting toilet system he could find, a super high-end woodstove, and a huge array of off-grid gadgets that he read about in his favorite magazine.

He said he doesn’t like chainsaws and doesn’t want to buy one, so he has asked a contractor to clear his woodlot with machines and has made additional purchases for cords and cords of firewood from elsewhere. He told us he doesn’t like dealing with rainwater catchment since he doesn’t know much about it, so he has contracted out to dig a new well that’s already run him a 4-figure bill.

Now, before you think I’m ragging on another person’s style like I’m some sort of homesteading authority, hear me out. This is a cautionary tale. This acquaintance is starting to run out of money and patience with his recent purchases and lifestyle changes. He wants to have all the benefits that he believes come from living off the grid, but he still wants to have high-speed internet, a warm house in the winter morning, and all the amenities that he was used to from living in the city. He complains about having to drive a far distance to get to the bar when it used to be close at hand. He is frustrated with having to clear land for his planned inground pool and somehow figure out how to get the water to fill it. He isn’t willing to learn from his neighbors or from us, because he said he read a website once and knows what he’s doing.

It’s an extreme case, but I think the moral is clear. If you choose to homestead or live off-grid, there’s got to be a lifestyle change that accompanies the location change, or you’re going to be living in perpetual frustration, disappointment, and eventual burnout. And I find it a real shame because this life is full of joy, freedom, and purpose — if you’re willing to change your expectations and perceptions. I truly do hope that this acquaintance makes it through this winter a lot wiser and more humble, but honestly, only time will tell.

8. Setting Unrealistic Goals

“We’re moving to the country!” a fresh-faced new homesteader exclaims. “We’re going to grow all our own food, sew our own clothes, make soap, raise horses to ride and raise geese and chickens for meat, and we’re going to build our own house and furniture and start up a farmer’s market to sell all our extra produce. And we’re going to do it all off-the-grid. It’s going to be a wonderful adventure.”

And yes, that is truly a wonderful adventure to set out to achieve. But if you think you’re going to do all of that in your first year, I’ll just say it bluntly: You’re not. Nothing can lead to homestead burnout and blunder more than starting too many projects and endeavors all at once and not giving yourself time to learn, adjust, and grow. This is a lot, and I mean, A LOT of work, and us modern folks have quite the disadvantage. Most of us are learning how to do it as adults, rather than training for this lifestyle from childhood. Even if you have your whole family on board, there are going to be really big challenges, hard days, and sometimes, few immediate payoffs.

Give yourself your best chance by learning how to set realistic goals and pace yourself in achieving them. I can’t tell you what that looks like, as it’s an incredibly personal process intimately tied to your specific goals, land, and philosophy. But I can offer a model. Sit down with your homesteading cohorts, if you have them, and list out every single goal you have for your endeavors. Cut them into strips or put them onto notecards — one goal per piece. Then, take as long as you need to arrange those goals in order of importance. Figure out what goals need to be achieved immediately, which ones can wait a few months or years, and which are desirable, but not absolutely crucial. Find out what goals hinge on other goals being accomplished first.

Though this process is simple, it may help you organize your thoughts in a way that helps you prioritize your projects. Fixing the broken-down house is a whole lot more important than raising five bottle calves. Getting rainwater catchment set up now will at least give you a somewhat reliable source of water that can buy you time until the new well is dug. Taking a full year to enclose the pasture with a better, fixed-up fence is worth the wait before you bring home the milking goats. Establishing a 100 by 100-foot garden is actually a huge endeavor. Maybe go for 15 by 5 feet and see if you can keep up with that first. You see where I’m going with this.

Sometimes, a harvest can be years and years in the making.

So, if you’ve kept with me for this whole, long article, I hope you don’t come out of it discouraged. There are inevitable mistakes awaiting anyone who decides to take a plunge and try something new. But if you plan ahead, pace yourself, and give yourself time to learn from both the failures and successes, you may get through those bumpy newbie years with a fistful of stories, a coop full of chickens, and the growing satisfaction of a life well lived. And maybe these bits of advice can keep you from repeating some of the mistakes the rest of us have made.

13 DIY Christmas Gifts

Wed, 12/15/2021 - 17:45

Whether you’re trying to avoid holiday shopping crowds or you simply want to spend more time creating unique presents this season, DIY Christmas gifts are heartfelt, fun to make, and personal. When you make a gift for someone, you don’t just invest in materials — you invest time in the person. 

Check out the DIY Christmas gift ideas below to make this holiday season special.

Important Details to Consider When Making Christmas Gifts

Before you go racing for the hot glue gun and glitter, let’s consider a few key points.

Christmas Gift Type

Most gifts aren’t one-size-fits-all. Even if you plan to make a large batch of homemade pepper jelly to preserve and give as a gift, it won’t be perfect for everyone. Children probably won’t know what to do with it, college students living in dorms mostly eat at dining halls, and some picky eaters simply don’t like peppers. 

Part of the inspiration for creating a DIY Christmas gift is making it personalized and tailored to the recipient. While you may have to deviate from the gift you’re making for everyone, the recipient will feel all the more special that you considered their quirks and preferences.

Types of Materials Used

Some DIY projects are made with simple household materials, while others require specialized products that require a trip to the hardware store. If you have to buy materials, make sure that you choose high-quality products. 

You want your DIY Christmas gift to turn out as nicely as possible, and you want it to be durable. Spring for that top-notch paint or perfect brush to ensure your holiday craft times don’t produce a batch of DIY fails. 

And if you don’t have a supply on-hand and don’t feel like taking a trip to the store, try to think of a creative alternative. No paint? Maybe nail polish would work. Don’t be afraid to get creative.

Other Considerations

Some of these gifts require a significant time investment. Plan your time wisely, and make sure that you choose DIY projects that fit your schedule. If the Christmas countdown is starting to wind down, choose a DIY Christmas gift that will make an impact and doesn’t take much time.

If you get frustrated with a project, take a break from it. Even the craftiest among us burn out, especially during the holidays. Taking some time away from the project to get some fresh air, relax on the couch, or run an errand, can keep you from giving up and chucking your project in the trash in the heat of the moment. 

Free Christmas Gifts Ideas to Consider

With some supplies you already have on hand, you can create a DIY Christmas gift that the recipient won’t soon forget. Let’s explore 13 DIY Christmas gifts that will inspire awe and cheer.

Mason Jar Cookie Kitphoto courtesy of sally’s baking addiction

This adorable mason jar cookie kit is a simple, impactful, and delicious gift for the holiday season. You can customize the cookie kit with added ingredients, like candy, nuts, or dried fruit. 

Simply fill the jar with the ingredients, decorate a recipe card, and tie with a bow. This DIY gift requires ingredients you may already have in your kitchen cabinet at home, but you can also jazz up this gift by adding a cookie cutter or a gift card to a local baking supply shop.

Find the plan at Sally’s Baking AddictionBottle Cap Mosaic

Bottle caps are so versatile, and so is mosaic art. You can make a mosaic on a piece of wood, a canvas, or even a piece of furniture. Remember that your mosaic doesn’t have to be massive, and it doesn’t have to be perfect. Just sketch a design and start gluing.

Watch the tutorial at John TungerSilverware Kitchen Signphoto courtesy of ck and nate

If you’re tired of storing old mismatched silverware sets, you can finally put it to good use with a DIY silverware sign. Collect a variety of silverware — patinated or tarnished pieces can add a rustic look — and bend them as needed to create a word, picture, or abstract design. 

Like the bottle cap mosaic, you can use a variety of mediums for your sign: A scrap of wood, a sturdy canvas, or a cutting board can provide an excellent backdrop. 

Find the plan at CK and NateMint Sugar Bath ScrubPhoto courtesy of love grows wild

Homemade bath scrubs make perfect self-care gifts. With just a few ingredients you may already have at home (salt, sugar, coconut oil, and a few drops of essential oil) you can create a personalized, functional gift. You can even design your own printable label for the jar or decorate it yourself with paint. 

If you need a gift for a group of people, gather up several bath scrubs and create a lovely DIY Christmas gift basket. 

Find the plan at Love Grows WildDIY Soy Candlesphoto courtesy of claire k creations

As with soap making, candlemaking can produce some genuinely delightful scents in your home. Customizing candles to your friends’ favorite scents provides an opportunity to really get creative. 

Another outlet for creativity is choosing the jar for a candle. While a traditional clay jar or thick glass cup works, vintage teacups, empty beer cans, and candy tins can make for a fun, quirky candle. Use your imagination to create a one-of-a-kind gift.

Find the plan at Claire K CreationsEssential Oil Holiday Room Sprayphoto courtesy of modern minimalism

Room sprays are practical gifts that keep on giving all year long. Whether you choose a simple misting spray or add an alcohol base for disinfectant purposes, homemade room sprays are simple, quick, and fun to make. 

Try a few different scent blends to create a signature scent, or customize the mixes to match the personalities of your recipients. Either way, friends and family will love this thoughtful, practical gift. 

Find the plan at Modern MinimalismHand-Painted Dishesphoto courtesy of hgtv

If you have kiddos in the house, painted dishes are a perfect project for youngsters. Painted plates make excellent keepsakes, and you can customize them with your name, a quote, or an abstract design. 

Your painted dishes can be as colorful or as minimalist as you like, and the opportunities for creativity are endless. For an bigger canvas, consider painting a large serving dish or the outside of a big salad bowl. You may even end up keeping a few painted dishes for yourself.

Find the plan at HGTVCoffee Cup Cozyphoto courtesy of leah Michelle designs

Coffee cup cozies are a perfect DIY Christmas gift for your teacher who promotes eco-friendliness. Instead of using disposable, single-use coffee collars at their favorite cafe, they can use a reusable one made especially for them.

You can crochet or knit these cute cozies, and use a tapestry needle to embroider the recipient’s name, a beaded pattern, or an abstract design for an added layer of personalization. They’re quick and easy to make, and you can test them out on Christmas morning with a nice cup of hot chocolate.

Find the plan at Leah Michelle DesignsMod Podge Wall Photo Collagephoto courtesy of mod podge rocks blog

We all have that box of old family photos gathering dust in the attic. Why not put them to use in a photo collage? For an ultra-personalized DIY Christmas gift, find a few great pictures of the recipient, and cut-and-paste them yearbook-style, in a medium of your choice. 

Then, add other elements to the collage to amp up the artistry. Mod Podge some pressed flowers, coins, buttons, ticket stubs, or any flat item onto the canvas to elevate your handmade piece. 

By creating a collage with meaningful pictures, you can make the perfect DIY Christmas gift for any special person in your life. 

Find the plan at Mod Podge Rocks BlogPaint-Dipped Kitchen Utensilsphoto courtesy of hgtv

With an inexpensive set of wooden cooking utensils and a cup of paint, you can create a hand-painted kitchen tool that the recipient will use regularly. After dipping the utensils in paint and drying them completely, make sure to cover the painted portions in a sealant, like polyurethane. 

If you’re a little hesitant to use paint in kitchen utensils (for fear of contamination), opt for natural pigments instead. Use the juice from blueberries for a deep purple, liquefied beets for a bright magenta, or black tea for a warm brown. 

Find the plan at HGTVWine Cork Trivetphoto courtesy of DIY network

If you’re an amateur sommelier, you probably have at least a few wine corks lying around. A wine cork trivet is a perfect DIY Christmas gift for a friend who loves wine, or the one who can whip up a tasty meal in the kitchen. 

With a few wine corks and some hot glue, you can make a unique design that will serve the recipient — and protect their countertops — for years to come. Cork is an excellent insulator, and wine corks are an easy-to-work-with crafting material.

Find the plan at DIY NetworkLavender Sachetsphoto courtesy of food 52

Gather up a breathable fabric of your choice (you can even upcycle a pair of old jeans or a T-shirt), a few sprigs of lavender, some rice, and a sewing needle. With a little bit of sweat equity, you can create a delightfully scented enhancement that anyone with a sock drawer will appreciate. 

If you’re feeling extra crafty, you can also embroider the fabric before stuffing it with lavender. 

Find the plan at Food 52Scrabble Letter Coastersphoto courtesy of simply darrling

If you’re looking for a DIY Christmas gift for a best friend who just moved into their first home, these Scrabble letter coasters will be a huge hit. After all, everyone needs a good set of coasters. How else are you supposed to prevent rings from soaking into your furniture?

With a short supply list and lots of room for creativity, these coasters are not only an excellent gift, they’re also a challenge to make. You may not know as many 4-letter words as you thought.

Find the plan at Simply DarrlingGreat Gifts Come From the Heart

This holiday season, sprinkle in an extra dash of cheer by making a DIY Christmas gift for coworkers, friends, and family. Not only does crafting allow you to make some truly unique gifts, it also helps you slow down, distract yourself from the holiday hustle and bustle, and enjoy time harnessing your creativity. 

Instead of fighting the holiday shopping crowds, stay home, make a piping hot batch of hot chocolate, and whip up some unforgettable, heartfelt gifts.

Homestead Stories: The Rare Middlemist Red

Wed, 12/08/2021 - 17:19

What makes a plant rare? Or anything for that matter? Well, it’s rare if there are only a few examples in existence.

The Middlemist red (scientifically identified as unspecified Camellia), a deep pink, rose-like flower — not red as its name suggests — with lush green foliage, was imported as a luxury item from China over 200 hundred years ago (1804). By the mid-1820s, it was pretty much wiped out in its native habitat of China. There are now just two known locations of this plant: New Zealand and Great Britain. Sad, when you think of it, because not only is this plant beautiful, it has many beneficial qualities from skincare to cancer to cardiovascular care.

The Camellia Flower Family_Veit_ // flickr

Camellias are a popular plant, originally found in eastern and southern Asia, in the regions between the Himalayas and Japan, and Indonesia. Part of the Theaceae family, there are at least 300 species and more than 3,000 hybrids. Camellias were popular, both in gardens and in the wild in China and Japan, long before they appeared in European and English gardens. In fact, the first didn’t appear in an English garden until the early 18th century.

Camellias are actually evergreen shrubs, sometimes growing into small trees up to 60 feet tall. The glossy leaves are thick and serrated, and the flowers are large, a prominent feature of the plant. These flowers can be as large as 5 inches in diameter with 5 to 9 petals. Colors include white, pink, red, and yellow (the yellow ones found in South China and Vietnam). The white-flowered variety is preferred for making tea. The dense collection of yellow stamens, a stark contrast to the petal color, is the fruit; a dry capsule, often divided into five compartments — all of which contain up to eight seeds.

Camellias do well in humus-rich, acid soils. They don’t flourish in chalky or calcium-rich soil. Due to its size and the size of the flowers, they require a large amount of water (and don’t tolerate drought). That said, there are some species that flourish in more arid, karst soil, as is found in Vietnam.

It is a fast-growing plant. Depending on the variety and geographical location, they usually grow about 12 inches a year until the plant is mature. Although beautiful, ornamental shrubs, it has long been grown for its various cooking, medicinal, and cosmetic properties, the most popular use being tea as a beverage and tea oil as a seasoning. It also has significant use in industrial applications. Camellia oil, made from pressed seeds, is used to clean and protect the blades of various cutting instruments.

John Middlemist and the Middlemist RedMaureen Barlin // FLickr

John Middlemist was a nurseryman from Shepherd’s Bush in England. He discovered the plant that bears his name while in China in 1804. He carefully transported it back to England — which must have been a challenging job given this particular variety is finicky, and the conditions on the long sea voyage would not have been ideal for transporting fragile flowers. He did manage, however, and once it was safely in England, he was able to propagate it. He donated the plant to the world-famous Kew Gardens, but it vanished from there, only to be found in 1823 in the collection of the 6th Duke of Devonshire, in his massive conservatory at Chiswick House in West London.

The survival of this rare flower (even in Chiswick Conservatory) was met with difficulties. Like many other grand English manors, Chiswick fell into neglect and became home to a buried bomb during WW II (which thankfully, didn’t explode and destroy the conservatory and its struggling plants). Volunteers came to the rescue, and over the course of a decade, managed to restore the conservatory and identify the many plant species including the rarest of all, the Middlemist red. Interestingly, this conservatory is home for 36 of them, but it was 1999 before the Middlemist red was identified, and a good thing, too. This beautiful, rare flower, imported from China as a luxury item has sadly, been wiped out in its native country.

At Chiswick, the Middlemist red camellia grows in a strictly controlled environment under glass. The flower blooms in the middle of winter, usually January and February.

Middlemist Red Native Habitat

The Middlemist red, like most of the Camellia genus, blooms better in an environment that provides light to partial shade with shelter from a hot afternoon sun. They do well under the shade of tall trees. This probably explains why they prospered in the Himalayas. However, it makes one question the untimely demise in its local habitat so soon after a clipping was transported from China to England. The only plausible answer is the plant was over cultivated, thus rendering it extinct in the wild. As a result, the only remaining Middlemist reds are now grown in captivity. One in a botanical garden in New Zealand and the other one at Chiswick in England. What was once wild, is now held captive.

Middlemist Red Propagation

The big question is why hasn’t this flower been propagated? Camellias can be successfully propagated by taking a cutting and placing it in water. It usually takes 1 to 2 months for the rooting to occur. When you notice a substantial root mass, it’s time to plant it in the ground (if the outdoor conditions are favorable and there’s no threat of frost). Once leaves start growing from the stem, you know your cutting has rooted successfully.

Camellias, as a flowering plant, produce pollen that is transferred to the flower pistil by insects. This fertilizes the plant and a seedpod forms. Inside the seedpod are tiny seeds that can scatter when the pod is broken, or the pods can be collected and opened manually to start plants.

Propagating by cuttings or collecting seeds sounds simple enough. In fact, there are sites that claim to sell Middlemist red seeds. So, perhaps the propagation process will repopulate the world with this beautiful but rare flower.

Middlemist Red Health Benefits

Camellias have a wide range of uses: C. japonica (tsubaki in Japanese) or rose of winter, this rare flower of the Middlemist red has a long list of health benefits.

For one thing, the Middlemist red has antioxidant properties which may be beneficial to various types of cardiovascular diseases and cancer, among other diseases. The flower of this plant is a natural skin moisturizer because it’s rich in oleic acid (a moisturizing fatty acid). Its collagen-boosting and antioxidant properties may have anti-aging benefits, making the skin look younger. The oil can also be beneficial to hair, making it moist and strong, even restoring damaged hair cells. It is also believed to have medicinal benefits for gastric disorders and certain injuries, and it’s often used as an anti-inflammatory agent.

A rare and beautiful flower, the Middlemist red is something to behold. With so many beneficial properties, one can only hope that botanists and scientists are seeking ways to further propagate this amazing, and a delicate shrub.

Introduction To Permaculture

Fri, 12/03/2021 - 17:10

Interested in permaculture and not sure what to plant? This could be a great article to get ideas for unique and useful permaculture species!

Before we begin, let’s talk about what permaculture is. 

What Is Permaculture?

Permaculture is a land management or agricultural approach which aims at adopting itself to mimic natural ecosystems as closely as possible in a sustainable way. Therefore, permaculture aims to adopt species arrangements and placements to mimic what is seen in flourishing natural ecosystems as closely as possible. This can mean planting border species on naturally occurring borders like planting blackberries along roadsides or forest edges.

It can also reflect planting species along natural contour (topography) lines. Permaculture typically tries to avoid monoculture and monocrops (as you don’t often find this in natural ecosystems) and often utilizes companion planting or intercropping.

Bamboo // Elizabeth ButtramWhy Try Permaculture?

Permaculture is a more permanent approach to land care and agricultural systems at large. This minimizes replanting season after season, which further decreases personal maintenance and monetary costs.

Benefits of Permaculture

The ecological and environmental benefits of permaculture are nearly endless:

  • Contributes to a more stable habitat for wildlife
  • Decreases long-term soil disturbance,
  • Increases CO2 sequestering
  • Decreases your personal carbon footprint
  • Provides you with fresh foods
  • Improves your relationship with the land
Downside of Permaculture

Perhaps the biggest and only downside to permaculture (if you experience resistance to change) is it can be a learning curve to begin. If you’re patient, have a willing attitude to learn, and have the time to do it, it will be a rewarding challenge.

digitearte // flickrDifferent Permaculture Species

We’ll be covering 10 species here. It is important to note that individual research should be done on your end to determine if these species would be suitable for your area. Factors that may influence species success include soil type, local weather and climate conditions, and the presence or absence of shade. 

Another notable thing to add is that many prefer to do permaculture with native species to help keep natural ecosystems more intact and consistent. This, as with most things, is a personal preference and should be thoughtfully decided.

Moringa – Moringa oleiferaForest and Kim Starr // Flickr

Also known as the Tree of Life, moringa is a widely cultivated plant around the world. It is fast growing, drought-resistant, and able to thrive in diverse soil conditions. 

Nearly every part of trees can be used from the seed pods to the leaves. The leaves are rich in vitamins, and can be eaten directly as salad greens, cooked like spinach, or even dried and added to stews (the leaves taste delicious). The seed pods are used in homeopathic medicines to help treat parasites and other infections. Sometimes soap is made. 

These trees are easy to care for as you can simply allow them to grow to their full capacity, or cut them back annually to keep the leaves within arm’s reach. Moringa is resilient, and does well with repeated cuttings.

Pineapples – Ananas comosusPineapple // Elizabeth Buttram

Once established, pineapples do not need much attention. It is important, however, to note that in cooler climates, pineapples need a lot of sun, and in very hot climates, they need more shade. In both climate conditions, they need ample amounts of moisture to thrive.

Pineapples are usually grown for their delicious fruit, but they are also aesthetically pleasing, and can be used as an effective natural fence barrier if you are interested in live fencing. With that said, they are sharp and stout, which should be a consideration before planting them or harvesting.

Blackberries and Raspberries – Rubus spp.

For simplicity’s sake, I’ve included both species together here, as they generally grow and exist in the same conditions. 

Blackberries and raspberries are pioneer species, meaning they like being the first species to colonize open fields and forest edges. This trait is why you often find these species on the edges of roads, fences, and fields, and it is something to keep in mind when selecting a planting location. They generally prefer lots of sun, although they can do just as well in partial shade. They thrive in a wide variety of climates and soil conditions, too. My biggest suggestion with these species is to set up some sort of trellis system (or simply plant them along a fence line). It will make harvesting these thorny plants much easier if your end goal is food-oriented. 

Blueberries – Vaccinium sect. Cyanococcus

Blueberries need full sunlight and slightly acidic soil. They usually won’t produce fruit for a few years, but once they begin, they will continue for decades.

Blueberries are wonderful for their fruit and aesthetic appeal. Every year, they produce white or pink, small bell-shaped flowers. Annually, not much work needs to be done to maintain these bushes. Weeding can be beneficial to decrease nutrient competition, and trimming them back so they don’t grow out of arm’s reach can also be helpful. However, allowing them to grow to their full capacity is beautiful and can provide vital food for wildlife species, especially birds.

Blueberries // Flickr

Turmeric – Curcuma longa and Ginger – Zingiber officinaleDormant Stage of Ginger in Cultivation // Elizabeth Buttram

Like blackberries and raspberries, ginger and turmeric have similar growth requirements. I combined the two here.

Turmeric and ginger don’t require much aftercare once they’re established. However, they do have specific wants/needs to be successfully cultivated. Both of these species need filtered sunlight throughout the day. Planting them under trees can successfully achieve this condition. They also need a lot of moisture. If you’re in a very wet area climatically, this is perfect. If not, you may need to install irrigation such as drip lines. If you’re establishing them from a finger bulb, they often sit dormant for a while before any green offshoots begin showing aboveground. So it is important to know where you have placed them, and avoid any soil disturbance in that area, as to not injure any dormant finger bulbs.

Hibiscus – Hibiscus spp.

There are many different varieties and species of hibiscus. Because of this diversity, it’s important to do personal research to reach your cultivation goals. For example, if you want to grow hibiscus specifically for the flowers (which are beautiful), or you would like to grow hibiscus for the tangy tea, there are different species you may want to cultivate.

Once established, hibiscus will continue on its own with little to no aftercare. Although, this plant does best when regularly mulched or weeded. If growing from seed, you generally need to soak the seeds for 24 hours before planting to help encourage quicker growth. 

Bamboo – Bambusa spp.Bamboo Growing on Road Edge // Elizabeth Buttram

Like most of the species listed above, there are many different varieties of bamboo that you can choose. Some do better in colder climates and high altitudes, while others prefer warmer environments with more moisture. Some bamboo species are short and stout, while others grow tall and lean. Likewise, there are many color varieties of bamboo. For these reasons, bamboo can be a really fun species to cultivate (as you have many options). And because of bamboo’s diversity, it can be grown in a wide variety of locations. 

A note of caution if you decide to cultivate this species: It is prone to taking over! It is similar to blackberries and raspberries as a pioneer species that prefers open fields and forest edges. If given the opportunity to grow freely, it will.

Red Clover – Trifolium pratenseJohn Munt // flickr

Red clover is easy to establish and can be an excellent choice for both aesthetics and wildlife. Deer, rabbits, and other small herbivorous animals love red clover and forage on it when it’s available (excellent if you don’t want it to grow too high but do not like mowing). Also, butterflies and other pollinators utilize red clover. 

It is quite common to see red clover growing along scenic highways and in open fields with butterflies all over. Red clover grows easily once it has been propagated and needs virtually no maintenance or upkeep (unless you prefer it to be trimmed back to not take over areas). 

Red clover is prone to taking over areas and easily outgrows competitor species. This is a word of caution if you do not want that result. 

Another warning for red clover has to do with where you decide to plant it. Planting it alongside busy roads can be harmful for whatever wildlife may be utilizing the clover. Most butterfly death actually has to do with wind speed coming off passing cars. And of course, car collisions with wildlife are scary and sad. If you’re in an area that has a lot of wildlife, you should be particularly cautious about planting near roadsides. 

Final Thoughts on Permaculture

There are numerous permaculture species that could be discussed here, but hopefully, this short starter list will give you some ideas of the wide range of possibilities. Remember to do your research about native versus non-native species. Likewise, remember to check if the species you choose to plant is compatible with your geographic and climatic location. Although, it can be fun planting species that are said to be incompatible in your area — to see if you can get them established. Just be aware it may create a hindrance for you. Best of luck!

Red Four-Leaf Clover // Elizabeth Buttram

21 Off-Grid Tools We Love

Wed, 12/01/2021 - 16:20

We recently asked our Insteading Community and YouTube viewers if they had any questions about homesteading that we might answer. You all replied with some great questions, and gave us a lot of ideas on material we can pull together to help you!

So for our first installment in what we hope is a long, continuing series, we have a great question from Fish Creek Country Gal:

Question: “What are some of the best tools & equipment (hand grinders, mixers, etc.) that don’t require electricity.

The hardest thing about answering this question is deciding which tools to recommend. I have a lot to say about off-grid living and what tools we depend on. I hope that these useful, well-loved devices can be as much an aid to your homestead as they are to ours. You may notice I don’t have any gardening tools in this list — that’s because so many of them are hand tools that we’ll be making a dedicated article for them in the near future.

I should also mention, by the way, that our off-grid homestead falls on the non-technologically advanced side of the spectrum as in Luddites might feel at ease here. As such, you’ll likely not impress friends who own high-tech gadgetry if you follow the humble recommendations on this list, but you will be able to get the job done for a lifetime of work.

All these tools are ones that my homestead has used for years, so I feel comfortable recommending them as long-lasting and dependable.

Our Favorite Off-Grid Tools1. San Angelo Bar

At first glance, this tool may seem too simple. It is, after all, just a 6-foot long steel bar with one pointed end and one flat end. But what it lacks in style, it more than makes up in absolute utility. We’ve used this tool for everything, from levering out shockingly huge boulders to digging fence posts in our incredibly rocky Ozark soil, to blasting apart half-rotted stumps. It’ll give you a good workout, too!

2. ScythePhoto by Rasa Kasparaviciene on Unsplash

There is little more satisfying or graceful than a scythe. I laugh at all the video games that show a grim reaper-esque scythe as a deadly weapon — clearly, they’ve never seen this ancient tool in action. In reality, a scythe is more a dance partner than meat cleaver, and in experienced hands, it’s able to cleanly slice through tall grass faster than any lawn mower. As a bonus, you get to hear the birds instead of a gas motor. When it comes to maintaining meadows and making your own hay on human power, you could ask for no better tool. Though it has a learning curve, I believe a scythe is a must for any off-grid homestead. We got our first scythe blade and snath at Lehman’s — a great store for off-grid tools and general homesteading supplies.

3. 5-Gallon Bucket

I use no tool on our homestead more than a 5-gallon bucket. I’ve written a whole article listing some of the surprising ways you can take this humble vessel and put it to work. If you need to provide water to animals, tote fresh water from the well, make a composting toilet, wash laundry, store dry goods, make an instant nesting box, carry a haul of foraged food, and more, these buckets do the job. Whether you buy a set of new food-grade buckets to hold your dried beans or salvage some old buckets from a Craigslist ad, you can never, ever have too many 5-gallon buckets.

4. Splitting MaulKen Dodds // flickr

When transforming rounds into firewood, there is no tool better suited to the job than a splitting maul. Often mistakenly referred to as an axe, this is basically a heavy-headed wedge with a handle that throws its weight into wood and thrusts it apart. Husqvarna still employs craftsmen who create mauls with old-style quality — the kinds you could pass on to your children, if they follow in your homesteading footsteps.

5. AxeRebecca Siegel // Flickr

An axe was an original pioneer’s all-purpose tool. With an axe, he could fell a tree, trim and shape those trees into logs, build a house, and then cut the firewood to warm it. Then shape wood into rustic tables, chairs, and beds to fill it.

On the modern homestead, the axe still longs to hang at your side, ready for action when called. The incredible diversity and specializations of the various shapes and sizes of axes speak to the versatility of this tool.

It’s also handy when you need to open the occasional heirloom, tough-as-nails winter squash.

6. ChainsawAlan Levine // flickr

If your homestead has only light chainsaw needs, there are electric models that can do a decent job. But for the tough tasks, a gasoline-powered chainsaw is sometimes the best answer. Yes, they are technically on-grid since they need fuel you can’t produce on your own, but they are nonetheless an important tool for many who are establishing their homesteads. You could manage a woodlot the old-school way with a large crosscut saw and bowsaw, but honestly, quality hand saws are getting increasingly hard to find these days.

7. Manual PumpPaul Sableman // flickr

I have used a Simple Pump for more than three years now, and with it, I have personally pumped thousands of gallons of fresh water for my homestead’s daily needs. This manual pump is so easy to install in an already-dug well that two people can do it on their own with the supplied user manual. If you want to ensure you have access to clean water, totally independent of the grid, a manual pump like this is an incredible tool for peace of mind.

8. Woodstove

I know of few single items that so fully embody the off-grid spirit as a woodstove. In order to operate it, you need to plan a year ahead as you cut, split, and season the winter’s worth of fuel. Through using it, you develop both a deep understanding and appreciation of fire and the many types of wood. The meditative act of building the fire every morning gives needed moments of thoughtful quiet. It also offers the chance to have an indoor clothesline strung above it. Slow-simmered meals can be cooked on its surface. And best of all, there’s the cozy warmth and cheery glow that no artificial heat can possibly replicate.

You can find woodstoves in a huge range of sizes — there are impossibly tiny models meant for operation on a ship or in a tiny home, and there are grand masonry stoves that are woven into the backbone of the house they warm. You can even make your own from a 55-gallon drum.

9. Grain Millwren everett // insteading

Whole grains have incredible keeping power. But wheat berries, rye grain, and whole barley are somewhat limited in their use until they’ve been ground into flour. Ground flour goes rancid pretty quickly, losing much of its nutritive value. So what is there to do? Grind it fresh, of course!

Back in the day, there was often a gristmill in the center of town where whole grains could be ground. In these modern times, lacking that community hub, the best alternative is to have the mill on your own homestead.

I grind our flour on my Country Living Grain Mill every single day and am yet to have an issue. I love having the freedom to grind coarse or fine, and the ability to mix-and-match my flours as wanted. We found ours like new on eBay for a much lower price than the one listed on the Country Living website. You can hook it up to a bicycle if you prefer to grind your wheat that way, but I have enjoyed the arm strength-building and delicious “daily grind.”

10. Hayfork

There are many tools that are mixed up with other tools, and I feel that the delicate hayfork has fallen into disuse only due to its confusion with the much heavier pitchfork and garden fork. I found my hayfork at an antique mall, still as solid as the day it was forged. This light-as-a-feather tool is essential for moving straw and hay — a task I never did in the city, but do daily on the homestead. Whether I’m moving dry bedding, filling the mangers, tedding hay, or moving hay and straw from tractor bed to storage, I feel like this wonderful tool is an extension of my hand. Its lightweight means that you can handle it for hours without getting too tired.

11. Berkey Water Filter View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Berkey Filters (@berkey_filters)

As you can tell from number 7 above, all of our homestead’s “house” water comes from our manual pump. Before any of that water is used for drinking or cooking, we send it through our trusty Berkey filtration system. When we lived in the city, we trusted this filter system to remove the huge chemical load in our city water. Now that we live in the country, we use it as an extra measure of security to make sure our drinking water is as clean as possible.

Berkey Filters are expensive, but after using this thing for more than seven years, I can vouch that it’s worth the price. And if worse comes to worse, it can take something as dirty as pond water and render it drinkable (though I wouldn’t want to have to scrub it afterward).

12. Washing Plunger

I’ve tried many off-grid washing systems, and they’ve all left me disappointed. I’m convinced that the majority of those plastic contraptions are made for sale to the armchair prepper market — something expensive to buy and store away for later, but not to stand up to daily use. The only laundry system I’ve ever found to stand up to actual homestead laundry is the washing plunger — a simple tool that doesn’t eventually break like all the other contrivances do. When paired with a simple scrub-board and a 5-gallon bucket, or a galvanized steel washtub, you have all you need to get the laundry done better than a machine, and with less water wasted. On an off-grid homestead, water matters.

If you’re interested, I’ve written an entire article on my simple, off-grid laundry process. I don’t know how many of you are out there are also trying to declare your own laundry independence, but if you’re one of them, I hope you now know someone else stands in solidarity with you.

13. Cast Iron CookwarePhoto by Helinton Fantin on Unsplash

Cast iron is seemingly synonymous with the homesteading life, and for good reason. Once you know how to season and care for a cast iron pan — not a difficult relationship, as you can read at our earlier article here — you’ll understand why these pans have been around for more than a hundred years with little improvement. I use cast iron pans, woks, baking sheets, skillets, and even a really neat cast iron cloche from Lodge (it’s my sourdough secret to a wonderfully hearty crust). In contrast, toxic nonstick pans are expensive, easy-to-damage, and can’t hold up to real cooking over a wood fire or a woodstove.

14. Clothesline

I know of some off-grid homesteads that employ a gas-powered clothes drier, and that fact perplexes me to no end. A simple string between two poles will dry your laundry as quickly, and obviously it won’t guzzle any fuel in the process. Granted, the weather will sometimes mess with your laundering plans, but if you have a woodstove, you can manage the wash one way or another. I’ve written a lot of my best tips and tricks over at my earlier article on using (and loving!) a clothesline here.

15. Wool SocksPhoto by Åsmund Arup Seip on Unsplash

Yes, I am that weird kid who got socks for a gift and LIKED IT. Even as an adult, I have never lost my excitement over socks. I suppose working outside all winter will do that to you — when you’re on your feet in calf-deep snow all day, the quality of your socks really matters. And for keeping things warm, even if wet, wool is king. Through several years of leading wilderness hikes in national parks and my new life of being a homesteader, I have worn holes in many brands of expensive wool socks. Smart Wool socks couldn’t hold up to even a year of heavy-duty wear. Wigwam socks didn’t do much better.

But Darn Tough? Those are socks I feel good recommending. Granted, these will set you back a pretty penny, but with their lifetime guarantee, they’re worth it. If you actually take them up on it, this Made-in-the-USA company will replace your worn socks with a new pair for the cost of shipping.

16. Wood Cookstove

My recommendation for this one is half-complete, as my wood cookstove has just been ordered and has yet to arrive (I’ve been waiting a long time for this one). But though my experience is currently lacking, I am full of confidence that this living, breathing heart of the kitchen will be worth its (significant) weight in gold. Our homestead will be equipped with La Nordica’s Rosa XXL wood cookstove, and with it, we will finally achieve cooking independence.

Once I know what I’m doing with my dear Rosa, you better believe I’ll be telling you all about it.

17. 2-Wheeled Wheelbarrow0000ff // flickr

Often overlooked for its humble state, the wheelbarrow is nonetheless a hugely important tool to daily off-grid activity. I really enjoy using 2-wheeled wheelbarrows like this Gorilla Cart pictured here. The handles can either be pulled or pushed, and the two wheels offer the stability that anyone who lives on sloped or rocky land needs.

18. The Ubiquitous Mason JarPhoto by Ella Olsson on Unsplash

My storeroom is brimming with Mason jars, and for good reason. They are just so dang useful. Of course you can with them, but that is (in my perspective) the most on-grid way to use these easy-to-clean vessels (your canning ability is, after all, dependent on single-use lids that you can’t make yourself).

I use half-gallon jars to hold fresh, raw milk. The small jelly jars and half-pints are excellent for organizing garden seeds. I ferment vegetables and culture yogurt in the wide mouth pint and quart jars. The long, thin jars often used for asparagus are absolutely perfect for holding sourdough starter. I store herbs and foraged teas in jars of all sizes. They’re great for infusing medicinal oils, as a sturdy drinking glass, or storing dried goods — I could go on, but you get the point. Get as many different sizes of these jars as you can, and you’ll find endless ways to use them.

19. Stainless Steel BowlsMargarita Persico // flickr

Any kitchen should be equipped with a set of good bowls, but a solid set of stainless steel bowls is best, I believe, for the off-grid kitchen and home. Get as wide a range of sizes as you can, the bigger the better. With an industrial-size stainless steel bowl, you have the perfect sourdough mixing tool.

Stainless steel bowls can also do double-duty as the easiest way to take an off-grid bath. Though you may not believe it, give Ole Wick’s method a try (he details it perfectly in this 1970s Mother Earth News article). You can get satisfactorily clean with less than a gallon of water if you know what you’re doing.

20. Gamma Seal Lids

These screw-top lids transform a food grade 5-gallon bucket into a waterproof, moisture- and mouse-proof, mouse-proof, airtight food storage fortress. All of our bulk grains, dried beans, and other long storage foodstuffs are locked away safe beneath these useful lids. Admittedly, the lids can be a pain in the butt to install, but once you’ve got them on, they’re solid.

Please note, however, that these are designed for sheltered storage. While they don’t need a climate-controlled castle, of course, they at least need to be under a roof so that rain doesn’t test the gaskets beyond their natural limits. The Insteading team has seen these lids let rainfall in after being left out in the open, and the contents have expanded, popping the lid off.

21. Vegetable Cleavers

I use my trusty, lightweight cleaver to chop, mince, slice, and dice. It’s got the heft you need to hack at a large pumpkin, but it can also finely mince garlic and ginger like a champ, and its large blade is an excellent scoop to transfer veggies from cutting board to pan. If you work on your knife skills, you’ll find that one simple knife can do all the tasks of many gimmicky electric gadgets.

Final Thoughts On Off-Grid Tools

There is an abundance of manual tools that have been created for answering kitchen questions, but even they can end up being gimmicks from an earlier era. Honestly, the kitchen has always been an arena for merchants and marketers to make a boatload of sales with useless time-savers. My recommendations for the off-grid kitchen are to learn skills, and not collect too many tools. Many dishes can be prepared with the simplest of tools — a rolling pin, a cutting board, potato masher, a colander, cheesecloth, spatulas, whisks, and really, really, good knives. Get good with your hands and those simple tools, and then you’ll know what additional tools you need.

This is, of course, an incomplete list, but I hope that it’s a good enough to get you rolling. Thanks for a great question, Fish Creek Country Gal!

And if you want to have your homesteading questions answered next, keep a watch on our Insteading Community site or subscribe to our YouTube Channel. We’ll be asking to hear more from you all soon.

Homestead Stories: Growing Vegetables Indoors

Wed, 11/24/2021 - 16:54

The growing season is too short and I long for fresh vegetables year-round. Whilst most supermarkets have fresh produce (at a price depending on where it came from), there’s nothing quite like growing one’s own food, indoors or out, and enjoying the benefits of the harvest.

I have had considerable success growing lettuce and herbs indoors, but this year I decided to try something different.

What Made Me Grow Vegetables Indoors?

My green peppers were just starting to produce fruit when the first frost of the season threatened. I covered them for the night and allowed the next day’s warm sun to nurture them again. It was a temporary fix and even covered, some of the leaves turned black, touched by the cold of night. I could either enjoy the tiny green peppers on the plant and give up the rest to winter’s woes, or be adventurous and move my plants indoors.

Several of my green pepper plants were growing in large deep pots, so I didn’t have to dig and pot them — that would have been too much of a shock to their system. I chose a warm day, nipped off the wilted leaves, sprayed the plants (soil and all) with insecticidal soap, and lugged them indoors to my grow-op in the basement.

(Yes, my grow-op is perfectly legal and legit: I only grow flowering plants — I overwinter some of my geraniums under the grow lights — and edible fruits and vegetables like lettuce, herbs, and now green peppers.)

Within a week, my pepper plants were picking up. The once tiny peppers were growing bigger and there were dozens of blossoms promising more.

Over the course of the next few weeks, the pre-existing peppers thrived, but the blossoms dried up and dropped off the plant. Was I missing a step? Were the flowers expecting the pollinating insects and birds to bring them to fruit? My research told me that green peppers (and all pepper plants) were self-pollinating plants. Should I help the blossoms along by imitating the pollinating process? I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to try.

One site suggested I take a cotton swab, wet the end, and then gently rub it around the inside of the flower buds. I tried the process on a few of the flowers, not wanting to risk all of them until I knew which way worked best. I was gratified with the results (though they were inconclusive) as within two weeks, I had peppers growing on both the cotton swab-treated flower buds and those I left alone. Hmm … I guess I’ll let them do their own thing next time. It’s less invasive and less time consuming.

The experiment was looking to be successful. No more winterized, tough green peppers for me. And, it got me thinking about what other plants I could successfully grow indoors during the long winter months.

Benefits of Growing Veggies IndoorsLess Risk of ContaminationPhoto by Lulucmy on Unsplash

I started growing lettuce indoors a few winters ago. I don’t eat a lot of salads in the winter; I find it too cold and prefer soups over salads. However, I do enjoy a bit of lettuce in a sandwich or on a burger. When purchasing lettuce in the store, not only is there the risk of E. coli, and who knows what else, contaminating store-bought lettuce, but it doesn’t keep very well. So if I want a little bit of lettuce, buying it in the store usually ends up with the unfortunate waste of at least half the product. Yes, I could purchase bags of cut lettuces pieces, but I fear these have a greater risk of contamination than the heads of lettuce.

Growing a small quantity of lettuce indoors allows me to monitor the entire growing process, reassuring me that it’s safer, fresher, and healthier than anything I would find in the store. And it’s the perfect amount.

Produces The Right Amount

I progressed from lettuce to spinach and herbs for the same reasons. I wasn’t looking to produce a big crop, just enough for my own enjoyment. Besides, big crops would require big indoor space — of which I’m in limited supply. I always have a lot of creative projects on the go. Those projects and my baking and cooking take up considerable space. The indoor garden has to fit in corners here and there.

What Grows Best Indoors

I’m not planning on producing large greenhouse quantities. I have to remind myself, given limited space and lighting options and the fact that the fruits and vegetables will have limited root growth depending on the size of pot used, that the quantity of produce will be considerably less than when I grow the same foods outdoors. Plus, the size of the produce will likely be smaller. My green pepper looks like it may grow to about half the size of the pepper fruit that I harvested when the plant was outdoors. My lettuce leaves are smaller, but I think they’re tastier. And, my tomatoes will likely be smaller as well.

Something else to consider is that everything grows more slowly indoors, but once things take root, so to speak, there’s a substantial harvest to enjoy.

Greens and HerbsPhoto by Wander Fleur on Unsplash

So, what to grow? Well, I have already started my lettuce, chives, rosemary, sage, and sweet basil. I rescued some tiny green onions (spring onion) plants before the first frost and brought them indoors to allow them to mature along with the green onion seeds I had started in pots weeks earlier. There’s my green pepper plant, of course, and I’ve started a couple of tomato plants (since tomatoes take up considerable space, I didn’t want too many plants crowding my indoor garden). I have yet to start the spinach seeds, but no rush, as there’s a long winter ahead of me.

Strawberries

Other plants that do well indoors are strawberries, carrots, and potatoes. Strawberries, like tomatoes, take up space, but in a hanging pot above my other indoor vegetables, it’s doable. Carrots and potatoes are an interesting idea. As root plants, they need deep pots (large fabric pots or the new fad of potato bags works well indoors) and lots of space. Not sure if it’s an option for me.

TimAlosi.com // Flickr

I’m sure there are other vegetables to consider. Whatever you enjoy fresh from your outdoor garden in the summer months is likely transferable and growable indoors during the winter months. All you need is deep pots, good soil, good light, and of course, space.

Location and Indoor Lighting Options

I’m lucky to have a sunroom, albeit a small one. However, that’s not always a viable option in the winter months as we tend to have long days of overcast weather with little sunlight. Plus, the new glass they use in windows these days often blocks the good rays needed to nurture plants.

Natural and Artificial Lighting

I’ve established several locations throughout the house and basement that benefit from a combination of sunlight (when there is some) and artificial, but plant beneficial, light. You can purchase all kinds of contraptions that include potting shelves and fluorescent grow lights. Hydroponic lights are another new fad as LED lights are starting to take over from the higher energy requirements of the fluorescents. The LEDs are as effective for growing plants — unless you lower the light too close to the top of the growing plants. This position makes it awkward and perhaps not as safe.

Pots and Soils

As for pots: The bigger and deeper, the better to simulate the outdoor root space that plant roots need to nurture their fruit. Plastic and clay pots work well, but there is also some benefit to using fabric pots (or bags as mentioned earlier for growing root vegetables). There’s a RhizoPot that is being promoted as eco-friendly and better for your plants. I haven’t used them yet, as I have lots of plastic and clay pots. May as well use what I have as it’s even less eco-friendly to dispose of the old to replace it with something new (seems counterproductive to me).

There are lots of soils to consider when growing vegetables indoors. I prefer nutrient-rich soil, one nurtured to benefit vegetable crops. Or you can mix your own soil, using compost from your outdoor garden and peat moss, and mixing it with regular soil. This is not my preferred method, as my conversion from outdoor to indoor garden happens quickly when the first frost warning ignites my need to move what I can.

Indoor Pests and Pets

Yes, there are indoor pests to consider: mold, mites, and the ever-curious domestic pets. Water as much as you can from the bottom of the pot to discourage organisms and mold on the top surface. Fungal gnats are a particular problem for me, but there are some tips I found helpful in dealing with fungal gnats.

 I may not be headed in the direction of making a living with my indoor crops, and I certainly won’t stop supporting local farmers, many with extensive greenhouses to grow substantial quantities of produce for local grocery stores (I always try to buy local when making my produce purchases). However, it’s rewarding to grow some of your own produce all year round. There’s definitely a psychological benefit to growing your own food. Not to mention, it makes for the interesting pastime of planting, watering, growing, harvesting, and of course, watching things grow. It’s good food for the body as well as the soul.

Growing Cucumbers Using A Trellis

Wed, 11/17/2021 - 17:05

I love growing fresh cucumbers in my country garden and enjoy having plenty for salads and pickling. Most seasons, I have lots left over to share with friends and family or to sell at the market.

Native to India, cucumbers are members of the cucurbit plant family, the same as gourds, squash, and pumpkin. They are generally eaten raw or pickled. Planted in late spring and harvested throughout the summer, cucumber plants do not tolerate dampness or cold soil. They thrive in United States Plant Hardiness Zones 3 through 9.

Cucumbers are one of the most popular fruits cultivated in both urban and rural homestead gardens. There are two different types of cucumbers: long, dark green cucumbers used for fresh slicing, and shorter blunt-end cucumbers most suited to pickling. Within these two types, there are dozens of different varieties of cucumbers (including lemon cucumbers).

Although cucumbers, like other vining plants, require a lot of room to grow, they can still be accommodated in a small garden plot by training the vines to a supporting trellis.

Support Trailing Garden PlantsDoug Beckers // Flickr

Cucumbers love to climb and trellising increases crop production. Trailing or vining plants like cucumbers produce better quality fruit with less disease or damage when supported on a sturdy trellis. If you plan to sell your cucumbers at the fresh market, you want firm-skinned cukes without discoloration, bruising, or spoilage.

Advantages to growing cucumbers on a trellis
  • Supporting the vines and fruit off of the soil is the best way to avoid yellowed, bleached, bruised, or misshapen fruit.
  • If cucumbers are allowed to sit on the ground, they can begin to rot.
  • A raised trellis makes the harvest process a lot easier.
Growing Cucumbers

Cucumbers, like most vining or trailing plants, grow best in a full sun location with nutrient-rich, well-drained soil and plenty of moisture. Cucumbers require at least one inch of water a week but cannot live on soggy ground.

Photo by Mohammadreza Ghasemian on Unsplash

Cucumbers are excellent companion plants for radishes, beans, sunflowers, beets, peas, and carrots. Avoid planting cucumbers in proximity to potatoes or fragrant herbs.

Related Post: Growing Cucumbers

Prepare the Soil

Before planting, enhance the soil with a generous amount of garden compost or aged herbivore manure (cow, sheep, goat, horse, llama). Cumbers thrive in soil with a 6.0 to 6.5 pH. If you are planting a sizeable area in cucumbers, it is wise to do a soil test. You do not want to over-fertilize cucumber plants. If the nitrogen level in the soil is excessive, you will end up with “leggy” vines and slow fruit production.

Plant cucumber seeds when the soil warms in the spring. Soil temperature should be 60 degrees Fahrenheit or above for ideal germination. When growing cucumbers, it takes 50 to 70 days of sunny weather to reach harvest.

Planting and Spacing

Cucumber seeds can be started indoors or planted directly into the soil. Space tender young seedlings about 18 to 24 inches apart, in rows, spaced 3 feet apart. All members of the cucurbit family suffer shock from transplanting. If you start seeds indoors, it is wise to use biodegradable seed pots, which are planted directly into the soil. This will prevent damage to delicate roots and help the plant avoid the shock of transplant.

Like pumpkins, squash, and other members of the cucurbit family, cucumbers present two kinds of flowers: male (staminate) and female (pistillate.) Male flowers fall from the vine and do not produce fruit. Their only purpose is to provide pollen for the female flowers. Every flower blooms for one day.

It requires a lot of bees to pollinate the plants. Commercial cucumber growers advise that for cucumbers (and other fruit and flowering crops requiring pollination) 2 to 3 beehives per acre are essential to encourage pollination. For cucumbers, adequate pollination is essential. Insufficient seed development causes misshapen, curved, short, or aborted fruit.

Although cucumbers are easy to grow, without support and direction, the vines can quickly over-run the garden, wandering totally out of control. A strong and sturdy trellis solves the problem, keeping plants healthy, attractive, and productive.

Provide Support

A lean-to or A-frame designed trellis is ideal for maximizing garden space and can be used in-ground or with raised beds. When using a lean-to design, you can plant radishes or salad greens under the trellis for a second crop before the cucumbers mature. A wide array of sturdy metal or plastic lattice, available for purchase online or at home and garden centers, is the easiest way to protect your cukes. However, if you are a handy homesteader, you can make a garden trellis from salvaged materials at little or no cost.

Because I am frugal and prefer a natural look in my garden, I prefer to make a trellis, garden stakes, and support posts crafted from driftwood I gather at the river. If you use driftwood in your garden, keep in mind that it is best to avoid saltwater driftwood that can leach salt into the soil.

Here are some different ideas on how to go about building your own support

Driftwood and Hemp Cord

Weave a driftwood and hemp cord “ladder” to support vining plants. You can use lengths of driftwood or fallen branches, bamboo, or wooden dowels. It is fun to use your imagination to craft attractive (yet functional) support to hang from a tree or against a building or fence. 

Cattle Panels

You likely have some old cattle panels lying about in the barn, or they are available online or from a local farm and feed store. Cattle panels are relatively inexpensive, galvanized fencing for livestock, ideal for supporting vining garden crops. The expansive grids allow for ease in harvesting. Cattle panels can be employed vertically, horizontally, assembled as an arch, or as an A-frame trellis. To make the most of garden space, a second companion planting of peas, beans, or melons will do well growing on the same grille. The tendrils of the plants grab hold of the wire, securing the vine to the trellis as they grow.

Teepee

If you grow bush cucumbers, you can easily make a 3- or 4-legged “teepee” support for your plants with bamboo, willow stakes, lengths of plastic pipe, or freshwater driftwood. Bush cucumbers flourish when planted in large pots or containers. Make sure the container has excellent drainage and is positioned in a full sun location.

Old plastic refrigerator shelf

The plastic-coated rack shelving from an old refrigerator, tied to wooden posts staked in the soil, offers excellent trellis support for many vining plants, including cucumbers, gourds, and tomatoes.

Alongside a fence

Plant cucumbers along the base of a rock wall or along a fence line. Train the vines to twine or trail, and attach them to the rock face for an attractive backdrop to the bold green color of the cucumber plants.

Containers

Plant cucumbers in pots or containers located in a sunny location. Position containers where vines can trail on a fence, tree stump, balcony rail, or light post. Cucumbers can also be trellised on a gazebo or covered garden swing.

Think of innovative ways to recycle using broken farm tools, a rusty wheel barrel, or an old ladder that has gotten too wobbly, as support for cucumbers or other vining plants.

Chicken wire and boards

Create a simple framework with horizontal support out of branches or boards. Cover with chicken wire for a lightweight, easy-to-make trellis. Gardeners with raised beds can add a post to all corners of the bed, and then string garden twine or wire to create a supporting grid.

Canopy with plastic pipe

Craft a sturdy box canopy frame with plastic pipe. Cumbers can trail up the pipes, and you can add cross shelving for potted plants. The cucumber flowers attract bees and other beneficial pollinators to the garden, and the shelving is a great way to maximize space.

Hog wire, metal stakes, or any fencing material leftover from previous homestead projects can be utilized in ingenious ways when it comes to cultivating cucumbers.

Harvesting Cucumbers

Garden crops like cucumbers are pollinated by bees at different times, creating multiple harvests throughout the growing season. To capture the best cucumber crispness, flavor, and firmness, harvest when fruits are about 6 inches long and less than 2 inches in diameter.

Use a sharp, sterile knife when cutting the fruit from the vine. Store cucumbers in a cool, humid place, preferably under refrigeration. It is best to chill cucumbers immediately after picking to remove field heat, protect flavor, and extend shelf life. Do not wash cucumbers before storage. You can store cucumbers in plastic bags or wrapped in plastic to preserve their moisture content.

References

6 Healing Herbs You Should Know About

Fri, 11/12/2021 - 16:07

Of the thousands of plants growing wild in nature, most are considered common weeds. However, many of these plants have healing, therapeutic properties. 

When out exploring nature, don’t be too quick to dismiss a plant as just another wildflower or common weed. Mountain mint, dandelion, burdock root, Oregon grape root, willow, plantain, arnica, chickweed, calendula, chamomile, and yarrow all offer health benefits. These common woodland plants are among the many medicinal plants found in Mother Nature’s medicine chest. 

Let’s take a look at some of those herbs that you can make use of.

Calendula Photo by Oksana Gogu on Unsplash

An ointment crafted from calendula (Calendula officinalis) applied to the skin relieves pain and reduces inflammation from leg ulcers, varicose veins, and hemorrhoids. Calendula, also known as pot marigold, also speeds the healing process of bites, cuts, and sore, dry skin. When preparing a salve with calendula as the featured herb, add antiseptic properties by adding tea tree or thyme essential oils. To craft a drawing ointment, blend in powdered marshmallow root or powdered slippery elm. 

Calendula grows well in a full sun location but manages fine in partial shade. Cut back the plants to encourage flower production. Once established, it self-sows liberally. Calendula is an ideal plant for the homestead herb garden, thriving in almost any type of soil in United States Plant Hardiness Zones 2 through 11. 

St. John’s WortPhoto by Lex Melony on Unsplash

St. John’s wort (Hypericum calycinum) is a compact, dense small shrub. Slow growing, it reaches a mature height of 3 feet. The plant presents upright branches with exfoliating reddish-purple bark. The leaves are deep blue-green. The feathery-textured foliage turns a brilliant yellow in the fall. In late spring and early summer, the hardy little shrubs display an abundance of golden yellow flower clusters. 

A healing herbal ointment that includes St. John’s wort acts as an analgesic, helping to reduce nerve pain. The healing properties in St. John’s wort help soothe pain and encourage the healing of cuts, scrapes, burns, and bites. To infuse the ointment with analgesic properties, add clove essential oil. 

Low maintenance and eye-catching, it is fabulous when used about the homestead as a ground cover in a rock garden. An excellent plant to control erosion, Saint John’s wort tolerates drought, poor soil, heat, and shade. 

Related Post: Homestead Stories: St. Benedict’s Herb

Oregon GrapeMahonia nervosa / Wikimedia Commons

A member of the plant family Berberidaceae, Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium), also known as Oregon grape holly, blue barberry, or Oregon barberry, flourishes through the northwestern portion of the United States. A low-growing, evergreen vining plant, Oregon grape presents deep green holly-like leaves that turn a brilliant reddish-orange in autumn. During the cold days of winter, the leaves take on a deep burgundy color in striking contrast against a snowy landscape. Oregon grape grows best in United States Plant Hardiness Zones 5 through 9. Drought-tolerant and disease resistant, Oregon grape thrives in sunshine or shade and does well in poor soil. 

There are two different types of Oregon grape: A dwarf, low-growing groundcover, and a shrub-like bush that reaches up to 9 feet tall at maturity. In early spring, both varieties display an abundance of bright yellow flowers followed by a tart, deep purple, edible fruit. Oregon grape provides habitat and food for songbirds and other wildlife. 

Oregon grape proves useful as a digestive stimulant. The hardy perennial plant presents anti-microbial, -fungal, -bacterial, -inflammatory, and -parasitic properties. Traditionally the little plant has been used for a diverse array of medical maladies including gastrointestinal issues (including giardia, an infectious type of diarrhea) as an anti-inflammatory in the treatment of eczema and psoriasis, as well as proving useful in the treatment of eye infections, athlete’s foot, acne, and other skin irritations. 

Mountain MintOregon Department of Agriculture // flickr

Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum), also known as short-tooth mint, is a low-growing mint native to the eastern portion of the United States. Found growing in open pastures, alpine meadows, and low woodlands, the hardy perennial plant is an excellent ground cover that spreads by rhizomes. Drought-tolerant mountain mint grows best in United States Plant Hardiness Zones 4 through 11. You can start the tough little plant from seed or rhizomes. 

Mountain mint repels deer, rabbits, and leaf-chewing insects. They can’t stand the taste or smell of it. The plant is useful around the homestead for planting in areas where deer tend to browse your favorite perennials. Mountain mint can be planted as a border around flowerbeds or as an underplanting around fruit trees. The herbaceous perennial does best in full sun but is tolerant of shade. 

The plant presents a pungent odor similar to spearmint when crushed. The dark green leaves edged in silver are heart-shaped, and about 2 inches long. In summer, mountain mint displays deep pink, tubular-shaped flowers attractive to bees and butterflies. Mountain mint is an important plant in northeastern butterfly gardens. 

The fragrant ground cover is not invasive. When planted in mass, the densely leafed mountain mint’s silvery brackets give the entire mass planting the appearance of being drifted with light snowfall. Pruning the roots in early spring with a spade prevents mountain mint from spreading. 

Indigenous peoples gathered the leaves for preparing a medicinal, mild-tasting tea that proved effective in treating stomach distress, ulcers, fevers, and colds. Mountain mint is also used as a culinary herb to enhance the flavor of sweet and savory dishes. 

Dried mountain mint is a primary ingredient in many smoking blends. When blended with dried mullein weed, bunchberry leaves, and a pinch of tobacco, and then rolled as a cigarette or placed in a pipe, Mountain mint contributes to a smooth, flavorful smoke that is used to relieve migraine headaches and help calm the spirit and alleviate stress. 

When wild-harvested plants are used as the primary herb or infused together with garden herbs and essential oils in a creamy herbal ointment, they bring healing relief to dry, rough skin and chapped lips, relieve muscle pain, help heal cuts, insect bites, and allergy irritations. 

Mullein WeedJohn Munt // flickr

Mullein is an herbaceous biennial that grows leaves during the first year and then flowers and dies the second year’s growth. During the first year, it can produce 18- to 20-inch wooly-gray leaves that form giant rosettes. The thick wooly leaves were used to wrap food to prevent spoilage. 

Mullein weed (Verbascum thapsus) found in open meadows, in open woodlands, roadside ditches, paddocks, pastures, and homestead gardens throughout the United States, is a key ingredient in a great many herbal remedies. The healing oil is used to treat earaches, and the stalks of the plant are bound into bundles for torches. Historically, the tenacious wildflower’s leaves were smoked to relieve lung congestion and to induce a pain-relieving euphoria. The leaves were also boiled to release essential oils that were skimmed off the top of the water when it cooled.

The dried flowers were reserved for a potent tea to treat stomach disorders, coughs, colds, dysentery, relieve melancholy, and restore energy. 

Burdockgailhampshire // flickr

A long-prized herb widely used in Western herbology, burdock root demonstrates proven efficiency as a blood purifier or blood cleanser, especially useful in healing skin infections and disorders and for overall optimum skin health. Burdock (Arctium minus), a member of the plant family Asteraceae is native to Europe and Asia, but several species valued for burdocks’ potent diuretic, detoxifying, and diaphoretic properties have been introduced worldwide. Burdock thrives in United States Plant Hardiness Zones 4 through 9. 

A recent research study into the medicinal benefits of burdock revealed antibiotic activity generated by the presence of as many as 14 different polyacetylene compounds found in the fresh root. Two of these compounds possess fungistatic and bacteriostatic properties. 

In ancient Chinese medicine traditions, burdock seeds (known as Niu Bang Zi) are added to boiling water and allowed to steep to a strong and flavorful tea used to treat stomach distress and chronic constipation. 

Burdock is also included as the main ingredient in essiac tea, a formula used by cancer patients worldwide as an herbal alternative treatment for cancer. It is also a primary ingredient in Hoxsey tea, another widely used herbal anticancer brew.

Bur oil, also known as burdock root oil extract, is used throughout Europe as an itch relieving treatment for dandruff and as a preventative for hair loss. Burdock oil is a rich source of phytosterols, and essential fatty acids said to enhance hair shine, body, and strength by promoting a healthy scalp and improved hair growth while it offers immediate relief from a dry, itchy scalp.

The large leaves of the herbaceous perennial reach up to 30 inches long. Blooming from early July through August, burdock flowers provide essential nectar and pollen for honeybees. 

Be On The Lookout

Visit your local county extension agent for assistance in identifying wild medicinal plants native to your local area. These natural healing herbs are excellent additions to the homestead herb garden or disperse across meadows and drainages. When wild harvesting, do so away from roadways to avoid gathering plants that may have been sprayed with herbicides. 

References:

Ethically Harvesting & Processing Aloe Vera

Wed, 11/10/2021 - 17:20

Had fun in the sun and now your skin is burned? Do you deal with irritating skin conditions such as acne, psoriasis, or eczema? Are you constipated or have digestive issues? What about dental plaque? Do you have buildup?

The list could go on, but let’s pause here and give a grand and beautiful solution that may help alleviate many of these issues for you … Aloe vera!

Aloe Vera // Elizabeth Buttram

Aloe vera is a popular and cherished plant for a variety of reasons. There are many medicinal uses of this plant with the most common and well-known being a relief for sunburnt skin. Aloe vera is also aesthetically pleasing, and many like to have it around to admire. Its plump leaves (that range from spotted yellow all the way to dark green) are beautiful, and the flower stalks that Aloe vera produces are equally mesmerizing. Not to mention, it’s easy to grow indoors and out with its size varying according to the container it’s growing in.

Many are unaware of Aloe vera’s uses and benefits outside of sunburn topical gel, and equally unaware of how to harvest this gel in order to use it.

Ethical harvest is the most important part of this article, and the first step in this process. Let’s start there.

Ethical Aloe Vera HarvestingWhat Is Ethical Harvesting?

This term means that the plant (regardless of species) is being harvested in a responsible and sustainable way, which often means the environmental impacts are next to none, or minimized as much as possible. For the purposes of this topic, it means the plant undergoes as little harm as possible from the process of harvesting, and therefore, is ensured to live on and keep thriving after the fact. After all, you can’t keep harvesting Aloe vera gel if the plant dies.

Thriving Aloe Vera // Elizabeth ButtramHow Does One Ethically Harvest From an Aloe Vera Plant?

To ethically harvest, you make sure to only harvest what the plant is capable of giving without killing it or causing it to become fatally ill. When harvesting from an Aloe vera plant, you first examine the size of the plant.

  • If you deem the plant to be large and abundant, you may harvest upward of 3 to 4 entire leaves at once.
  • However, if you find the plant to be rather small, you may only take one whole leaf, or none at all.
  • Unfortunately, there is no scientific or mathematical formula to follow here and it truly requires your best judgement. Hopefully the following pictures will help you better understand.

Related Post: How To Grow Healthy Aloe Vera

Primarily Solid Green Leaves With Yellow Serrated Edges // Elizabeth Buttram

If you have a larger Aloe vera and you can harvest more leaves, ensure that you are taking leaves from multiple sides of the plant. You don’t want to take four leaves from the same section of the plant as this greatly increases the chances of infection. It is easier for the plant to lose leaves from multiple areas and helps minimize the chances of infection and accelerate healing.

If you have a large Aloe vera, you may believe you can take more than four leaves, and this may be true. However, I would advise taking leaves on a rotation and harvesting four leaves the first day, and (after the plant has had a few days to recover and close off the fresh wounds from where you harvested) then take more. This allows the plant to undergo less stress and ensures an easier time healing.

Another factor involved when selecting leaves to harvest is the actual size of the leaves. Having a large Aloe plant doesn’t necessarily mean the leaves are ready to be harvested. Generally, younger leaves will have light-colored streaks or spots on them, while older leaves will be solid in color, or fading from light to dark with different shades of greens and yellows. You want to avoid any leaves that still have the spotting or streaking; these leaves are too young to harvest.

Next, you are looking for leaves that are both wide and thick. The width should ideally be 3 plus finger-widths wide, and the thickness has no specified perimeters except there should be a “squish factor.” If you lightly squeeze the leaf, it should be soft and allow you to squish it a little. This means it is ready and ripe enough to be harvested. If it is hard, and you are unable to squish it without a more forceful squeeze, it is not ripe enough to be harvested. Think about a mango or avocado, you don’t want to eat hard mangoes or avocados – plump and squishy ones are what you want.

Aloe Vera Leaf That Is Under Recommendation Size to Be Harvested // Elizabeth Buttram

Another aspect of ethically harvesting to help minimize harm is that you harvest with a clean tool, and make a clean, straight cut at the base of the leaf as close to the center of the plant as you can get. Jagged cuts do not allow for optimal recovery, just as smooth cuts on human skin tend to heal better and quicker than jagged ones (same same, but different).

Previously Harvested Leaf Wound Healing and Example of Aloe Vera Leaf Being 3 Plus Finger-Widths Wide // Elizabeth Buttram

You will find when you harvest Aloe vera that it actually cuts easily, and therefore, any smooth, clean tool can work well to do this. No special tools needed. Cutting as close as possible to the base of the leaf you to get the most gel you can, as larger quantities of gel are found lower down in the leaf.

Immediately after harvesting the leaves, you should place them so the base is facing down. Aloe vera contains aloin, which is a quite bitter and potent natural laxative I would advise against ingesting. You will notice after you harvest the Aloe vera that yellow liquid will begin draining out. This is the aloin.

Placing the leaves with the base down helps the aloin to drain. I have placed them on rocks with minimal dirt present, hung them on clothes lines, put them in large containers to help them stay standing (sometimes, containers with water). The water seems to help pull the aloin out quicker. Regardless, allow the Aloe vera to drain for at least 30 minutes.

Aloe Vera Leaves Propped up Inside Pot Filled With Water to Allow Aloin to Drain // Elizabeth ButtramProcessing Aloe Vera

Next, prepare to begin processing the Aloe vera leaves and harvest the gel. To do this, ensure you have these items present.

  • Cutting board or a surface that’s equivalent
  • Sharp, nonserrated knife
  • Large bowl filled with water
  • Sink/drainage/rinsing station
  • Compost bin
  • Spoon
1. Chopping the tips

Chop off the tip of the Aloe vera leaf, as well as the base where the initial cut was made (residual aloin that has not drained will usually stick here). Discard top and bottom in the compost bin.

Tip of Aloe Vera Leaf Being Cut Off // Elizabeth ButtramBottom of Aloe Vera Leaf Being Cut Off // Elizabeth ButtramTop and Bottom of Aloe Vera Leaf Removed // Elizabeth Buttram2. Section the leaf

Cut the leaf into 2 or 3 sections, depending on the length of the leaf (use your best judgment, as always).

Leaves Cut Into Equal Sections // Elizabeth Buttram3. Cut the serrated edges

Cut off the serrated edges, being careful to cut as close to the edge as possible. This is in an effort to keep as much of the Aloe vera gel in the leaf as possible.

Serrated Leaf Edges Removed // Elizabeth Buttram4.Slice the layer of green skin off the flat side

You will notice the bottom side of the leaf is smooth, while the top side that faces the sun is rounded. Slice the layer of green skin off the flat side, holding the leaf as seen in this picture. Try to cut as close to the green skin as possible to minimize any clear gel being cut off with the skin. Discard the skin in the compost bucket.

Flat Skin Being Peeled Back (With Use of Knife Not Seen Here) to Reveal Gel Underneath // Elizabeth Buttram5. Scrape the aloe

Using the spoon, scrape the clear Aloe vera gel off the remaining green skin.

Gel Within Leaf You Want to Scoop out With Spoon // Elizabeth Buttram

Important to note! When cutting off the bottom, flat skin, try to ensure there are no green or yellow fibers still attached to the gel. If there are, remove them from the gel as well. Likewise, when scraping gel off the remaining skin, don’t scrape so hard that the green-yellow fibers come off with it. The green-yellow fibers will contain aloin which you want to avoid as much as possible.

Another fun thing to note and try! Taste the Aloe vera gel during the process. Again, I wouldn’t recommend tasting the aloin as it is dripping, but taste the gel as you scoop it off the remaining skin. It will likely be very bitter.

The last step is simply rinsing the freshly harvested gel a few times. There will be obvious pieces of gel present, as well as essentially invisible slime. Try not to rinse the slime down the sink. The slime is good! You want to keep that.

After you have rinsed it a few times, try tasting it again (it may still be bitter). For safe measure (even if it is not bitter) allow Aloe vera to soak overnight in water in a refrigerator or closed container. Then rinse again the following morning. Continue taste testing until bitterness is gone.

Aloe Vera Hanging on a Clothes Line // Elizabeth ButtramAloe Vera Uses & Benefits

Now that you have the gel, what do you do with it? How can you use it? Why would you want to use it? What are the benefits?

There are two uses of Aloe vera gel (that I know of).

Topical Use

Because of its antioxidant and antibacterial properties, Aloe vera gel is excellent in treating numerous skin ailments. It helps accelerate healing and prevent infection. You can use Aloe vera gel to treat sunburns, canker sores, acne, eczema, psoriasis, and wrinkles if applied topically. Aloe vera gel may also provide temporary pain relief from sunburns and canker sores. It is said if swished in the mouth, it can help reduce dental plaque.

Essentially, once you have processed your Aloe vera gel, it is ready to be applied topically. You may prefer to blend it to help remove the larger chunks of gel leftover and allow for a smoother application. You may also choose to mix it with organic coconut oil to make a lotion.

Aloe Vera // Elizabeth ButtramIngestional Use

Because of the aloin present, Aloe vera can help alleviate digestive issues, particularly constipation. Aloin acts as a natural laxative. It is not helpful or advised to drink pure aloin. The previously described process tries to reduce the presence of aloin by repeated washings. Ingesting the final product after most of the aloin has been washed away is okay. The trace amounts of aloin can help alleviate mild constipation. Also, the antibacterial and antioxidant properties of Aloe vera gel help to provide relief from a wide variety of digestive issues. It is also said that Aloe vera can help reduce blood sugar levels.

You can ingest the processed gel as is. The taste is that of water with slight bitterness. Or, you can lightly batter it in sugar (even a lemon sugar mixture) and freeze it to have as a healthy-ish frozen treat. Personally, I have blended it and made Aloe vera mint lemonade. Blending the gel into smoothies is also a nice way to ingest it.

Aloe Vera // Elizabeth Buttram

* Not all of these uses and benefits have been FDA approved or scientifically proven, most are home remedies recommended by herbalists. They are homeopathic remedies. Try under your own advisement and risk.

I personally have tried aloe vera gel to treat sunburns and acne, and provide relief from constipation, and have found it to be helpful for all of these. While it is widely accepted that Aloe vera gel aids in sunburn relief, it is not as commonly known that it helps alleviate mild constipation issues. It could be the placebo effect of me having believed it would help, but regardless, I found it very useful.

Companion Planting For Eggplant

Mon, 11/08/2021 - 18:28

If you enjoy grilling outdoors, eggplant is a must in the homestead garden. Companion planting and a bit of effort will help ensure a bountiful harvest of succulent, sun-blessed orbs. During the height of the summer season, you will harvest several eggplants a week. Plant a few more, and they are a profitable cash crop to sell at the fresh market.

What Is Companion Planting?

Numerous horticulture research studies support the age-old wisdom of companion planting. Companion planting is a gardening method of placing plants that support and encourage the growth and well-being of other plants, close to each other.

Companion planting brings diversity and harmony to the homestead garden. The intermingling of compatible plants presents a diverse array of benefits. Companion planting helps control weeds, attracts pollinators to the garden, offers shade and shelter, conserves soil moisture, and wards off harmful insect pests and disease.

Environmentally and health-conscious gardeners cultivate organically grown foods: eggplant is no exception. Wishing to avoid exposure to toxic herbicides and pesticides, they choose to practice gardening methods that rely on nature, common sense, and a vigilant attitude to manage their garden production. Companion planting is a key ingredient in an overall gardening modality that is good for people, pets, plants, and the planet.

Best Companion Plants For Eggplant

For centuries, in many parts of the world, eggplant was grown strictly as an ornamental plant for its attractive foliage and eye-catching fruits. Within the flowerbeds, eggplant was paired with companion flowering plants.

Mexican marigold, nasturtium, snapdragons, and sunflowers repel aphids, white flies, flea beetles and ants. Nasturtium is also an excellent dense ground cover as well as a vining edible plant that ward off many types of crop-munching insects. Both the flowers and the leaves of nasturtiums are consumed in salads or used as an attractive plate garnish.

Eggplants growing alongside a companion plant, tomatoes. Karen and Brad Emerson / Flickr (Creative Commons)

Legumes (peas and beans) enhance garden soil by converting nitrogen in the air, into nitrogen in the soil. Planting bush beans next to eggplants is also an effective method of keeping the Colorado potato beetle from decimating the garden crop. If you plant trellis growing peas or beans, be sure to plant them in a location where they will not shade eggplant: eggplant demands full sun for optimum growth, texture, and flavor.

Hot peppers are a good neighbor to eggplant and most other garden vegetables. Hot peppers emit a chemical from the plant roots that helps prevent Fusarium, root rot, and a wide range of other plant diseases.

Eggplant can be somewhat prone to insect attacks. Strongly scented herbs such as thyme, rosemary, chamomile, lavender, horehound, oregano, sage, basil, tarragon, and all varieties of mint help repel insect invaders repulsed by the pungent herbal scent emitted by the herbs. Thyme is especially effective against garden moths and aphids.

Savvy homesteaders plant herbs for medicinal and culinary use, to protect other plants, to attract pollinators, and to sell as a cash crop at their local farmer’s market.

Catnip is another plant that will keep flea beetles from infesting your garden. However, catnip negatively impacts he growth and development of peas and beans, so keep these two combative plants apart from each other.

Eggplant and spinach are good companions as the taller eggplant shades tender young spinach while spinach helps conserve moisture in the soil while suppressing weeds. Spinach is an attractive edible ground cover in any sunny location in the garden.

Potatoes, tomatoes, tomallitos, and chili peppers, like eggplant, are all members of the nightshade family. As a family, they are compatible and supportive companion plants to commingle with eggplant.

About Eggplant

Native to China and India, eggplant (known as aubergine in the U.K. and Europe) is part of the nightshade plant family Solanum melongena. Cultivated today for its tasty edible fruit, eggplant is a nutrient-rich vegetable packed full of nutrition, fiber, and flavor. In South America, the shiny purple summer vegetable is known as brinjal. Fairly easy to grow, eggplant can be enjoyed raw, cooked, steamed, sautéed, grilled, and fried.

Cultivated in China since the 5th century B.C., eggplant was a food staple in Africa before the middle ages. While early varieties of eggplant were rather bitter, newly developed varieties are sweet and creamy, making them an excellent addition to the homestead garden.

Today, China, Japan, Turkey, Egypt, and Italy are the largest growers and consumers of eggplant. Eggplant is an esteemed component of the Mediterranean diet and is a favored ingredient in many culinary preparations in France, Italy, and Greece. Eggplant presents a pleasing, slightly bitter taste and a soft, sponge-like texture.

Eggplant (Solanum melongena L.) is a close relative of potatoes, tomatoes, tomallitoes, goji berries, and peppers. For hundreds of years after eggplant’s introduction to Europe, the bitter nightshade plant was reserved as an attractive landscape decoration.

The fruit was considered poisonous and said to cause dementia and insanity. For centuries, tomatoes carried the same undeserved erroneous reputation as a poisonous plant.

Eggplant is available in a diverse array of cultivars including a wide range of hybrids. An edible ornamental plant, eggplant is typically a purplish-black in color and elongated or teardrop shaped.

Tips For Growing Eggplant

Propagated from seed, eggplant does best when started from transplants. A cold-sensitive plant, eggplant should not be set out in the garden until the soil has warmed and all danger of frost is passed.

Similar to tomatoes, eggplants suffer injury at low temperatures and fails to flourish until soil temperatures warms. Before moving transplants outdoors, it is important that seedlings be hardened off by reducing temperature and water.

When planting eggplant, choose a sunny location with loamy, well-drained fertile soil. Eggplant isn’t too picky, and will manage to grow in most garden conditions as long as the days are warm with plenty of sunshine.

Eggplant grows at Snug Harbor Heritage Farm on Staten Island. Kristine Paulus / Flickr (Creative Commons)

To prepare the soil for planting eggplant, work the soil well, removing rocks and roots. Eggplant is a heavy feeder. Before planting, integrate a generous amount or organic compost or well-aged herbivore manure (e.g. sheep, goat, horse, or cow) into the soil to add additional nitrogen and other vital nutrients.

Like other members of the nightshade family of plants, eggplant presents a sturdy vine with fruits hanging from it much like tomatoes. The eggplant reaches several feet in height at maturity. Plant seedlings approximately two feet apart in a row. Space rows three feet apart.

Once established, eggplant is fairly drought tolerant, thriving in the heat of summer. However, for optimum production, flavor, and texture, provide the plants with a minimum of one inch of water per week. To do its best, eggplant requires six to eight weeks of nighttime temperatures around 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

Eggplants Need Structural Support

As your plants mature, you will soon see why eggplant needs support. Eggplant can grow up to six feet tall. The ripe fruit is large and heavy.

Fruits vary in size, with larger varieties producing fruit that weighs up to a pound each. Without support, heavily laden plants bend and break. Keeping the fruit, especially elongated varieties, up off the ground helps prevent plant disease, defines fruit shape, and makes harvesting easier. Anticipate an abundant crop when choosing support (cages or trellis work well) or staking for your eggplants.

Harvesting Eggplant

When selecting eggplants for harvest, fruits should be solid and heavy for their size. No matter the variety or if the mature fruit is white, purple or green, the skin should be smooth and shiny without evident bruising or decay.

To determine if the fruit is ready for harvest, gently press the fruit with the pad of your thumb. If the spot bounces back it is ready to pick. If the indentation remains, the fruit is not yet ripe. Eggplant tends to bruise easily. Handle gently when harvesting.

Basil, flowers and eggplant harvested in the morning on May’s Flower’s in Sanger, California for the farmers market. Bob Nichols / USDA

Eggplant requires approximately 110 days to reach maturity. The crop is harvested across an extended period, until cold temperatures or the first frost inhibits growth.

References

Watch Your Garden Grow – Eggplant, University of Illinois

Eggplant, Cornell University

Field Performance of Bt Eggplants (Solanum melongena L.) in the Philippines, US National Library of Medicine – National Institute of Health

Eggplant, University of Florida

How to Find & Store Cheap Leftover Pumpkins After Halloween

Fri, 11/05/2021 - 16:40

I have been waiting for this day all fall. Specifically, I’ve been counting down the days until November 1.

You see, now that the money-grabbing fall holiday has passed, the money-grabbing winter holiday is steamrolling its plastic, glittery way into place. There’s no room for the two to share. Thus, anything fall-themed absolutely needs to be ousted from the big box stores and grocery stores ASAP.

And that, dear Reader, is my time to quietly harvest something precious: food for the winter.

All those huge, “decorative” pumpkins that were selling for $8 or more are suddenly worthless!

Well, to the stores, maybe, but not to me.

Pumpkins // Wren Everett

You see, once upon a time, these weird, warty, heavy-skinned pumpkins were far, far more than porch eye-candy. They were nutritious heirloom varieties of squash specifically developed by patient gardeners for centuries. But rather than being valued for mere aesthetics, they were developed with outstanding flavor, giant size, and long-storing qualities. Among the hundreds of varieties of heirloom squash, you’ll find lumpy, bumpy, green Hubbards, graceful-necked Cushaws, dusky-brown Musquee de Provence, retro-blue Jarrahdale, or multicolored Turk’s Turban. All of them are full of fascinating histories and good eating. They may be labeled “clearance bulk pumpkin at $1 each.” But they are still food, just as they always have been.

For the homestead or home looking to put away food for the winter, you have a huge opportunity, right now, to rescue these useful and undervalued squashes before they end up in a dumpster. I brought home more than 150 pounds of long-storing food for $24. Where else can you find food at that price nowadays?

So, have I piqued your interest? Read on to learn how to participate in your own great pumpkin rescue!

Are Those Pumpkins Edible?

Yes. Every pumpkin or squash was bred and developed to be food. If you’re unsure about that fact, bear with me for a few botanical paragraphs so I can explain why you can trust it.

I’ll start by asking you to please use discretion when you read about “pumpkin edibility” online. Most blogger-folks are not farmers or gardeners and don’t really know what they’re talking about. My first three hits on multiple search engines for “are decorative pumpkins edible?” all turned out to be factually incorrect in some way (mostly about mixing up gourds and squash, which I’ll explain below). I’m not trying to sound like a know-it-all. After all, I’m just another of many voices online, but I hope that I can give you the knowledge to understand, and therefore, mentally turn these squashes back into food rather than holiday decor items.

Online and in stores, the terms squash, pumpkin, and gourd are used recklessly and interchangeably, leading to confusion.

Squash

Squash is a big term that covers many species in the Cucurbita genus. This includes the four main squash families that are used for food in the United States: C. angyrosperma (sometimes called C. mixta), C. pepo, C. moschata, and C. maxima. All of your summer and winter squashes are found in those families. The bulk pumpkins being sold right now are all technically winter squashes.

Pumpkins

Pumpkin is a nonspecific term that describes hundreds of varieties of squash from C. pepo, C. moschata, and C. maxima. There is no pumpkin species, so the term is used however people want to use it.

Related Post: Growing Pumpkins

Gourds

“What about gourds?”, well, they’re complicated. The baggies of tiny, decorative gourds in stores now are either tiny squash from the C. pepo species that’s potentially edible, or a true gourd (which is decidedly not). Hard-skinned gourds are a separate genus (Lagenararia specifically). Though a few varieties of true gourds are edible when young, they were traditionally developed for use as vessels, not food. Those being sold for table decorations are all mature, so any gourds in the mix are beyond edibility.

Decorative gourds from a farmers market may be larger than the ones at the big box supermarkets, so try to find out what they are before assuming they’re squash and blindly making a soup. If they are thin-fleshed and bitter, they’re gourds, and not edible.

So, I hope that explanation clears things up. In this article, I’ll use the terms squash and pumpkin interchangeably.

Storing and Using Your Rescued Pumpkins

First, it starts with finding unwanted squash at a grocery store. Usually, after October 31, they’re in a big bin near the front door or outside. If you get to harvest from a clearance bin, try to be discerning with which squash you select for storage. Any with their stems broken will deteriorate more quickly than their stem-intact counterparts. This isn’t to say they’re useless, however. Just plan on using any dented or stemless squashes first.

This was the first one to the cutting board

Now, rescuing that heaping batch of pumpkins only matters if you use them, of course. And part of that is storing them properly so they can last you the whole winter. Folks might mistakenly believe that pumpkins rot quickly — but that’s because their main experience is probably with carved pumpkins that are left on cold, wet autumn porches. There could be no worse storage situation.

Winter squash are, in truth, amazingly long keepers if given the proper environment. And thankfully, it’s easy to find. The ideal storage location for squash of any size is your kitchen (no root cellar needed). Warm, dry locations like that give squashes the best chance for long-term survival (until you eat them, that is).

I store my squash all over my kitchen and living room. They line the floor of the bookshelves, get tucked under benches and tables, and make impromptu “sculptures” around my kitchen island. It may seem like there’s less floor space, but it’s a small price to pay for having a huge supply of stable, winter food.

This Bruised spot was no big deal to cut out, but that’s because I caught it plenty early

As you slowly eat them through the fall and winter, be sure to give your rescued pumpkins a weekly once-over. Though you may now value them as your food, they’ve been through a lot before they got to your kitchen. Earlier rough handling may have bruised them, and bruised areas start to rot if undetected. If you find any areas that look a bit darker than their surroundings, have wrinkles, squish a bit under pressure, or (worst of all) are leaking liquid, get that squash to the cutting board, pronto. Even if a bit has gone bad, you may be able to salvage the bulk of it.

If the bruised rot is isolated to a small area and hasn’t gotten to the seed-filled core, cut it out, throw it to your chickens, and enjoy the unblemished portions. But if the bruise has rendered the greater part of the pumpkin soft, slimy, smelly, moldy, or otherwise unappetizing, it’s a goner. Just be aware that if you compost it whole, you may end up with 300 pumpkin plants in your compost pile next spring.

This big pumpkin has been out for two days (and three meals and a pie) and no worse for the wear on my counter.

Now, some of these heirloom pumpkins are big. Like, 15 pounds or bigger! Those are my favorite. I understand if the thought of figuring out how to cook all 15 pounds of squash in one meal is an overwhelming prospect, and storing that big hunk-a-pumpkin in the refrigerator is an annoying space-waster. Thankfully, you don’t have to do either. Pumpkins and squashes can happily sit on a counter for a few days while you hack off useful chunks. Granted, you’ll have to find a way to integrate pumpkin into your dishes while you have it sitting there, but as long as you use an opened pumpkin within a week of cracking it, you’ll likely not have to deal with a squash going bad.

On “opening” pumpkins by the way, you should know that some of these squash varieties are tough. Like, tougher-than-your-knives, tough. Hubbard squashes, for example, were once used as foodstuff on sailing ships since they were thick-skinned enough to put up with rough voyages without going bad. Ma Ingalls had to take a hatchet to her Hubbards to get at their sweet, orange flesh. And I can personally vouch, she knew what she was doing. If a squash is too difficult to cut with a knife — and many of them are — you’ll need to bring out your inner pioneer and take a hatchet to them, or drop them onto a hard, clean surface. Though it sounds and looks brutal, it’s actually a lot safer than trying to force a kitchen knife into an unyielding squash on the countertop. Give your neighbors a friendly wave after you’re done, and hope they won’t spread too much gossip about your driveway cucurbit carnage.

Some chickens enjoy their squash // wren Everett

Finally, if you do get a little pumpkined-out midwinter, remember that pumpkins are fantastic livestock food. Chickens and goats will happily help themselves to whatever extra squash you share with them. They’re full of vitamins that winter rations often lack, and the seeds are a good support in keeping them worm-free. In fact, you might plan on extending your winter feed by keeping a boatload of squash on the side, just for them.

How to Cook Rescued Pumpkinsrescued pumpkins // wren everett

When I rescued part of this year’s collection of pumpkins, I watched as the woman in line behind me curiously inspected my heaping cart. I anticipated her “What in the world are you doing with all those?” almost as the words were coming from her mouth. I get this question every year.

When I explained they were going into my winter larder, she shrugged. “So, you make a lot of pies or something? That’s … a lot of pies.”

I understand where this woman is coming from, but I’m not planning a pie fest (though some of these heirloom squashes do make positively decadent pies). The truth is, squash is such an amazingly versatile ingredient that constraining it to pies is missing its true potential. These various squashes all have their own unique flavors and textures. Some are stringy, some are custard-like, some taste very mild, and others have an amazingly sweet taste. You’re playing squash roulette with flavor. So, if you go out to save pumpkins from a dumpster fate, I recommend you get as diverse a collection as you can to give yourself the best chance at a broad palette of squash flavors.

On our homestead, we feast on rescued pumpkins all winter. Here’s a short list of our favorite ways to work these into nearly every meal.

Pumpkin Puree Drink

Sliced, skinned, and roasted at 400 degrees Fahrenheit until nicely caramelized and fork-tender. Though the ubiquitous cinnamon-clove-nutmeg spice combination pairs nicely with many pumpkins, try using curry powder, garam masala, ras al hanout, sage, Chinese Five-Spice, or smoked paprika for a different flavor experiment.

Slice, skin, cube, and simmer pumpkin until soft. Separate pumpkin cubes from water, then blitz in a blender until smooth. You now have an easy-to-use pumpkin puree that is far fresher and tastier than the tinny-tasting canned stuff. I use tons of this puree to make pies, pumpkin breakfast bread, and pumpkin muffins.

Chinese Five-Spice is a fantastic option for any squash

Mix 1/2 cup of pumpkin puree with a cup of whole milk and ground spices of your choosing (cinnamon, nutmeg, and cardamom are always a win). Warm and sweeten, and thin with water (if wanted), and you have a really nice drink to sip by the woodstove.

Pumpkin Soup

Make a wonderful pumpkin soup. Simmer pumpkin cubes with onion and garlic. We spice ours with ginger, garlic, cumin, cayenne, turmeric, black pepper, and cinnamon, and then blend it smooth. Add optional cream, and top with sourdough croutons from yesterday’s bread baking, and you’ve got a filling, homemade meal.

pumpkin soup // wren everett

Think of pumpkin as a vegetable. You can cube or slice it, and add it to curries and stir-fries as well. Serve with a side of rice, and you’ll wish you’d rescued every forlorn pumpkin at the store.

Pumpkin Seeds

The seeds are edible too! Depending on the variety, however, some may be too tough to chew. Once you’ve opened a big pumpkin, toast a sample batch of its seeds to see if you like them.

pumpkin seeds // wren everett

If the squash you’re using did require a hatchet, it’s likely you won’t be able to cut it into nice-looking chunks. That’s all right. Simply hack it into manageable slices or hunks, drizzle them with oil and salt, and roast them in the shell. Grunt like a cave dweller if it makes you feel better. The skin will become a handy little serving tool, and the flesh usually cooks down to a creamy texture that is delightful when topped with butter and scooped out, a spoonful at a time.

Enjoy Your Rescued Pumpkins

So get out there and join me in the great pumpkin rescue! There are literal tons of food in clearance bins, just waiting for someone to see their delicious worth. Give them a better use than merely rotting at the base of your front steps. Let them shine in the kitchen instead.

Homestead Stories: Common Burdock

Wed, 11/03/2021 - 16:40

My friend passed the paper, and I read the headline: “Invasive Weed Killing Animals — Wow! That’s scary. What else does burdock kill?”

“Just about everything in its path by the sound of it.”

“We seem to have a lot of invasive plants taking over.”

“The powers that be always have a great plan,” my friend said. “Until their great plan creates another problem.”

I chuckled. Usually destroying one problem included introducing yet another. Like an invasive weed to kill off an invasive weed only to become the new invasive terror, the kudzu plant is one example.

ruth hartnup // flickr

“It’s called Arctium minus,” my friend continued. “Common burdock. It’s destroying our ecosystem in many ways.”

“How?”

“Primarily the burrs. When they attach themselves to fabric, fur … you name it. It’s stronger and more destructive than Velcro. In fact, once on sheep, the wool has to be discarded because it’s not usable. Attached to horses and cows, it makes them ill and not marketable. These burrs have a tendency to catch some creatures, particularly songbirds, and they literally starve to death. Not a pretty sight.”

“Oh my!” I exclaimed. “I guess it overtakes native species and unbalances our ecosystem in the process?”

A Little About Burdock

Burdock, from the Asteraceae family (genus Arctium) is a biennial plant native primarily to Europe and Asia, but found just about anywhere around the world. It is a large plant. At its full height, about 7 feet tall, it’s pretty difficult to miss. That height plus the reddish stems, large, heart-shaped leaves with toothed edges and hairy undersides, and of course, the purple flowers with spiny, hooked leaves (the leaves can be up to 20 inches long) — which when gone to seed, become those annoying burrs that latch onto everything. And those burrs aren’t small either — about an inch in diameter.

Ah yes, the purple flower that blooms from July to October might be pleasant to the eye, but when it goes to seed, those leaves turn the flower into a round and bristly nuisance. A deadly one, too, which is unfortunate considering how beneficial this flower is to honeybees who collect its pollen and nectar around August when other pollinating plants, like clover, are dying back for the season and goldenrod hasn’t started to bloom.

Related Post: Homestead Stories: Japanese Knotweed

Burdock Habitat

 A very sturdy plant, common burdock can grow almost anywhere, including waste places, pastures, open words, roadsides, along fence lines, and in barnyards. Interestingly, however, is that it seldom grows in cultivated land.

Burdock Uses

Deadly when in its natural habitat, various parts of the common burdock plant are both edible and have medicinal uses. The root is sometimes used as food; the root, leaf and seed are used for various medical ailments. Conditions such as skin and stomach problems and joint swelling are the most common ailments treated with various parts of the common burdock plant. The chemicals present in common burdock are believed to be beneficial in combatting bacterial infections and inflammation.

Some research shows that creams made from the fruit can reduce those annoying eye wrinkles known as crow’s feet. In tea, burdock has been shown to help prevent the recurrence of diverticulitis, although it doesn’t stop the bleeding associated with it. Some studies show that burdock is helpful in treating breast cancer, diabetes, fluid retention, fever, anorexia, stomach conditions, gout, acne, dry skin, psoriasis, and other conditions. Research is slim on how effective these medicinal uses are. Like anything else, use with caution and seek professional advice as to the merits, safety, and efficiency of common burdock as a medical treatment.

isamiga76 // flickr

As for food and drink, common burdock is a staple in many diets. The taproot of the young plant is often harvested to be eaten like any other root vegetable. It’s found in popular European and Asian dishes. In Russia, the roots actually substitute for potatoes. The common burdock root is crisp like a potato or carrot, and it has a mildly sweet flavor. Like many root crops, there is that musty flavor of the mud in which it was grown, but this can be soaked off. The root is often pickled, and it cooks well in soups and stews.

The young flower stalks, if harvested in late spring before the flowers appear, is thoroughly peeled and eaten raw or boiled in saltwater. The taste is similar to that of artichokes. The young, soft leaves are also popular in Japanese cuisine.

With the increased attention to high fiber diets in the late 20th century, common burdock became a popular culinary additive. It’s full of dietary fiber, as well as calcium, potassium, and amino acids. It’s also low in calories.

Like dandelions, common burdock is a popular ingredient in drinks. In the United Kingdom where common burdock has its origins as a medieval mead, common burdock can be found in soft drinks. Before the trend to use hops as a bittering agent in beer, common burdock root was the main component.

How Safe Is Burdock?

Like anything else, there are some unsavory and unsafe side effects to using common burdock for medicinal purposes. There may be some beneficial qualities, but it can also be dangerously toxic and even deadly. Medicinal products made with common burdock have been associated with poisonings when the plant has been contaminated with the root of belladonna (a poisonous perennial of the nightshade family, Solanacea). Whilst these poisonings have not been caused directly from common burdock, it gives one pause to wonder: Do the two plants growing in close proximity to each other cause the cross-contamination poisoning? Or is it a result of harvesting the two plants (belladonna, as well as being poisonous, is also deadly) and processing the two together?

Some Things To Be Cautious About When Dealing With Burdock
  • When taken by mouth, common burdock is considered mostly safe if eaten with food. However, there is insufficient information on its safety, reliability, and possible side effects when taken by mouth.
  • When applied directly to the skin, once again, common burdock is considered safe, but only for use up to four weeks. Common burdock may cause an allergic reaction to people who have already shown sensitivities to certain herbs and flowers, and common burdock, when applied directly to the skin, can cause a rash.
  • There is little reliable information to support the use of common burdock safely while pregnant or breast feeding.
  • Although some research suggests common burdock is good for treating bleeding disorders and blood clots, other research suggests that it might increase the risk of bleeding for people with bleeding disorders. Also note that taking common burdock with other medications intending to slow blood clotting might increase both bruising and bleeding.
  • Those who already experience allergy symptoms to plants like ragweed, chrysanthemums, marigolds, daisies, and many others in the Asteraceae family, are likely to show similar allergy symptoms for common burdock.
  • There is some evidence to support the use of common burdock to lower blood sugar. The problem is, taking common burdock might lower blood sugar levels too much, especially for those diabetics already taking medication to control their blood sugar levels.
  • Research suggests that common burdock might increase the risk of bleeding both during and after surgery, so it’s recommended to stop taking it at least two weeks before a scheduled surgery, and definitely let the surgeon and health care professionals know you’ve been taking it.

There are many other marginally tested uses for common burdock. Most of the suggested medicinal benefits of common burdock are sketchy at best. In other words, no one really knows if common burdock is beneficial or dangerous. Err on the side of caution and make sure you do the research and consult the professionals.

How to Control Burdock

Despite of its culinary and supposed medicinal benefits, common burdock is a blight on the natural habitat of many wildlife species, and its invasive nature strangles and prohibits the growth of other plant life. Other than harsh defoliant chemicals (that are just as harmful to both the environment and all who live in it), or digging up every plant, roots and all (a mind-boggling task at best), the only known remedy to eliminate common burdock are specific bugs like the larva of the ghost moth and other lepidoptera like the lime-speck pug. The larva eats the plant voraciously, but unfortunately, it also eats other plant life as well.

john Munt // Flickr

Is It Wise to Import Another Non-native Plant of Insect to Stem the Invasion?

This is a loaded question that has besieged researchers throughout time. Importing plant, animal, and insect life may have short-term benefits in eliminating one problem, but ultimately, once that problem is dealt with, the import may create new problems of its own. It’s an ongoing debate and perhaps there is no right answer. Monitoring new growth of common burdock and advising the various councils who deal with invasive species control is just one step toward dealing with the issue.

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