Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Portable Potato Planter

Over the past eight years I’ve lived in three different places and have homesteaded each one to varying degrees. As a result, I’ve adapted some methods for low-impact temporary homesteading. One of the most useful and important is container planting. I have several light-weight planters made from a plastic pickle barrel cut into thirds. These are easy to handle and to move from place to place, and they work so well that when I finally settle down on my own homestead again, I plan to continue using them.

One of the best uses for the planters is to grow potatoes. I used all three of them at my previous places to grow melons and sweet potatoes, and this year I used only the bottom section to grow two “regular” potato plants. I simply filled the planter with compost and stuck the potato pieces down inside it. As the plants grew, I added grass clippings and mulch hay to build up the covering around the plants.

However, I wasn’t sure where to put the container in the yard. It seemed to be in the way no matter where I put it, so finally I decided to keep it in a child’s plastic wagon. This way I could move it out of the way or change its location without having to lift it.

When it came time to harvest the potatoes, all we had to do was lift the plants out of the compost and then feel around for any stragglers. When we were done, we took the barrel behind the garage to store it for the winter. Now all we have to do is decide how to eat those potatoes – mashed, fried or au gratin!

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Making a Fire Ring From Retaining Wall Blocks

Growing up in the country, we always had a fire ring of some sort in the back yard. Usually it was a simple U-shaped enclosure made of loosely arranged concrete blocks. It didn’t add anything to the appearance of the yard, but it was still a nice place to sit and roast a marshmallow or two on a summer evening.


Recently my brother and I decided to give my mother a new fire ring for her birthday. Since she was building her fires in the level circle left behind by her old swimming pool, we came up with a plan to create a nicely landscaped circular fire pit area.


Our first chore was to clean up the grass in the circle with a string trimmer. Then we scraped the central area smooth with a shovel and measured the diameter of the circle to find the center. My brother scribed a 3 ½-foot circle around the center point by using a very high-tech piece of equipment: a stick held against a hoe handle. He had bought 26 landscaping blocks at the home center, 13 for each of the two levels of the ring. The 12 x 9 x 4” blocks had a lip on one edge, so in order to make them stack nicely he dug out a small trench around the ring for the lip to nestle into, then laid the blocks in a circle around the ring. He put the second row of blocks lip-side-up, because otherwise they would have been recessed from the bottom row and we wanted them to line up vertically.


It took a bit of fiddling with the size of the circle to get the blocks to fit exactly right, but when he was done we had a very attractive fire ring. Our mom was thrilled. That night she built a fire and made a s’more to celebrate. In a future post I’ll show how we landscaped the area around the ring.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Homemade Natural Weed Killer Recipe


I hate chemical weed killers. They’re noxious, they’re toxic, and I believe that our environment –and everything in it, including us - is far better off without them.

However, I also hate to see weeds sprouting up between my sidewalk stones and spreading across my gravel driveway. I’ve tried weekly attacks with the string trimmer, but in our recent warm, rainy weather the weeds grow back to almost full size before the week is up. I’ve also tried covering large areas of the driveway with an old silver-colored garage floor tarp, which does burn off the weeds after a few days in the broiling sun.

For smaller spaces and cooler weather, here is a homemade natural weed killer recipe that really works! I boiled mine (be careful not to inhale the boiling vinegar vapor) and immediately poured it between the sidewalk stones. Boiling is optional, but the piping-hot liquid killed the weeds immediately. That was two weeks ago, and the sidewalk is still weed-free!  

Natural Weed Killer Recipe

½ gallon vinegar
¼ cup salt
½ tsp. dish soap

Mix well, boil if desired and spray or pour on weeds.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Recommended Reading: Letters of a Woman Homesteader (free ebook!)

The Homestead Act of 1862 granted most American adults, including women, freed slaves and immigrants, the ability to make a claim on 160-acre parcels of land in certain northern and western states. These original homesteaders were required to build a home and begin “improving” the land, which generally meant farming it. After five years, they could apply for the full deed to the property.

One woman who took advantage of the Act was Elinore Pruitt Stewart, a southern widow who went to Wyoming in 1909 with her young daughter, Jerrine. Elinore went to Wyoming to work as a housekeeper for a Scottish immigrant who had established a cattle ranch there. She staked a claim on a property adjacent to his and soon afterward she married him. Meanwhile, she homesteaded her own place independently of Mr. Stewart.

During this period, Elinore wrote prolific letters to her former employer and friend, Mrs. Coney. The letters are wonderfully descriptive accounts of life on the frontier as it was lived by a courageous, hardy, and positive-thinking young woman. Elinore took frequent horseback trips into the wilderness with her young daughter, at times risking death in the name of adventure. She traveled long distances to visit her “neighbors” 30 miles away, helped other frontier women in need, and befriended surly mountain men and an elderly hermit. 

Elinore’s letters show what is possible in terms of survival for those with a little skill and a lot of determination. They give modern homesteaders a great example of how to live life no matter what the situation is.

These letters are a treasure of American history, spirit and literature. They are available as a free ebook for Kindle from Amazon.com. There are more of Elinore Pruitt Stewart’s letters published, including another free ebook, “Letters On an Elk Hunt.”  I’m looking forward to reading it!

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Homestead Planner is now a book!


For all of you who have been wondering where the blogger went, here is your answer: I’ve been writing a book! It’s called The Complete Homestead Planner: A Month-by-Month Guide to Planning the Work on Your Homestead and is now available on Amazon.com in both paperback and Kindle versions. The book is a series of monthly chapters, each divided into sections titled “Household,” “Gardening,” “Harvesting/Preserving,” “Foraging,” “Livestock,” “Buildings & Grounds,” Machinery & Equipment” and “Enjoyment.” Each section has lists of items to do that month in that category.

Because my homesteading experience is based in western Pennsylvania, the book applies best to those living in similar climates. We’re in USDA Zone 6 (it was Zone 5 until the new map came out last year). We have four temperate seasons with a last frost date of about May 15. Our growing season lasts until mid-October or so. I've lived here all my life, on everything from a small in-town lot to an 11-acre horse farm. The information in the book is based on those experiences plus extensive research and fact-checking. It started out as an aid to organizing my own work, but once I had most of the information gathered, I realized that other people could benefit from it as well.

Quite a bit of the book is available to read for free via Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature, so if you’re curious, check it out!


Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Nighty Night!

It's time to put our gardens to bed for the winter -- mostly! Some tough plants, like Brussels sprouts and root vegetables, can linger in the garden under a cozy layer of straw. Let carrots, parsnips and the like have a few frosts, and then bundle them up in straw for the long haul. You can also extend the season for salad greens by building temporary cold frames around them. These don't have to be anything fancy. Several years ago I found three used windows that fit over my raised beds and simply laid them across the top of the frames to cover most of the opening. I used a piece of plywood to cover a narrow gap that was left at one end. It didn't look that great, but I was harvesting lettuce in the snow that year!

Another thing you can do is build small hoop frames over your greens and cover them with plastic. The frame can be made of any flexible material that will hold the plastic up off the plants.

This year my lettuce crop is just about done by now, so I'm not doing anything heroic to save it. I may throw a sheet on it during the next few frosts, but it's been so heavily harvested that I'll only get tiny leaves from now on anyway.

For garden beds that are done for this year, clean out dead plant material, add any needed soil amendments such as lime, manure or compost, and mix it in. Some people plant winter rye in these beds, which they turn under in the spring to add additional nutrients. This is too much work for me, so I usually just throw a layer of leaves on the raised beds or just leave them as is for the winter. Bare soil isn't ideal but it does save time and effort!

If you have a bed that you want to use early in the spring, cover it with a nice layer of straw or leaves. When March comes around, pull the mulch back and plant away!

Monday, April 2, 2012

What to Do On the Homestead: Early April

Spring is well underway here in western PA; according to some sources we are a month ahead in terms of what’s blooming now. My lettuce seedlings are an inch or so tall, the pear tree is blooming, the daffodils and forsythia are fading already, and the groundhog that lives in the base of our old oak tree is awake and active. Sounds like spring to me!

Here are some things to do around the homestead now, if you haven’t done them already.

In the Garden:

- Start tomato seeds indoors. Try heirlooms for more variety.

-Plant lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard, carrots, radishes, parsnips, peas and onions in the garden.

- Plant blueberry bushes.

- Turn compost.

- Turn on outdoor faucets and hook up hoses.

Around the House:

- Clean and shock wells and springs if needed; have water test done.

- Watch for termites (which may swarm as winged ant-like insects) and carpenter ants.

- Clean and prepare grill for spring and summer barbecues.