Recognizing Resources

The world is a mess. The climate is beyond repair and all we can do now is wait for disaster after disaster to destroy us. All of our institutions are so completely fragile that the next big event might mean the end of our entire way of life.

If you really believed that, would you be spending your time reading this website on how to homestead?

The Practical Optimist

OK, you might be worried. And yes, there are things to worry about. But if you are interested in becoming a homesteader, then you must be an inherently optimistic person.

You are probably also a practical person. You know that big changes are coming in your lifetime. And you’d rather have a bit of control over the outcome.

Being willing to believe that potentially difficult changes are coming and taking practical steps to improve your chances by homesteading are completely compatible beliefs. However, thinking the world is ending and nothing can be done about it, then trying to homestead anyways is pretty much the definition of crazy.

This point is important because I don’t want you to waste your time on something you don’t believe in. If you really believe the worst, if that intro paragraph rings absolutely true, then please stockpile, focus on your survival skills, and get your shelter in order.

But if you really are a homesteader at heart, own the fact that you are also an optimist. It will make this process a whole lot easier because optimism is actually a necessary skill in homesteading.

Think about it.

Early homesteaders literally set out to live in places that were absolutely inhospitable to human life. They were starting new lives on tracts of land that were wild, desolate, isolated, unpredictable, and unquestionably dangerous. Many homesteaders had few skills to speak of and even fewer possessions.

The Glass Is More Than Half Full

It is really important to get your head around this idea of optimism being necessary because successful homesteading requires that you see possibilities other people don’t see.

As the old saying goes, the pessimist sees the glass as half-empty, the optimist as half-full, and the realist sees half a glass of water. Personally, as an optimist, I see a whole lot more than a half-full glass of water.

I see a glass that can be used to sprout seeds on my counter, water plants, cover outdoor seedlings like a cloche in bad weather, a storage vessel, a rain collection device, a measuring cup, and so much more.

Homesteading requires you to see an abundance of resources where other people see problems or perfunctory things.

Practice Optimism

Even though I know, with certainty, that any true homesteader is an optimistic person by nature, not all of us have been practicing this skill regularly. In fact, we might be a bit wishy-washy on the optimism front.

We might have gotten into the habit of letting other people diminish our creativity or convince us to be conventional. We may have just gotten lazy and started seeing resources as only having narrow utility.

Optimism is still in you. It’s still a fundamental part of the person you are. It’s just a bit rusty.  So, before you start making plans about all the stuff you want or need, do me this favor.

Take some time to practice homesteading optimism.

Look around at the things you already own or have free access to. Then, start to see the myriad of ways you can use those resources to advance your homesteading dreams.

Don’t look online to try to find all the ways other people have used a mason jar for example. It’s important that you come up with your own ideas so you can awaken this sleeping skill.

Instead, hold that glass of possibility in your hand and try to imagine all the ways you might use it on your homestead. Then write all those ideas down.

Resource Abundance

There is another side to this idea of homesteading optimism. As I said before, there are real reasons to worry about the future. Particularly on the resource front. This is a finite planet and it is in peril in some ways.

Making ecologically sound choices in our homesteading practices is one way we can avoid being contributors to our global problems. So many of the skills we modern homesteaders aspire to evolved out of the necessities of the times they lived in.

Basket weaving began because containers were needed and pliable young willow swatches were abundant. Earthen shelters were built in the desert because wood was scarce and dry earth was abundant. Log cabins were standard in forested areas because wood was plentiful.

Rather than starting with a long list of specific wants for your homestead, how about starting with recognition of the resources that are abundant in your area and on your property.

Sometimes the things that are “abundant” seem repugnant at first blush. For example, to the grass grower, fields of dandelions and clover are like a curse on the land. To an optimistic homesteader looking at the available resources and making a plan for how to use them – those lawn weeds become wine, tea, coffee substitute, salads, and honey bee food.

A neglected cow pasture reclaimed by brush and kudzu might look like a mess to a cattle farming. To a homesteader though, that is a perfect place to put some goats out to pasture.

Look around your area with a homesteader’s optimism. Note what’s abundant (and sometimes irritating) and imagine how that excess can be put to good use on your homestead.

Start to make lists of all the ready resources you already have. In fact, use your weather observation notebook for this too. Go front to back on weather notes and back to front on resource notes until you meet in the middle with a full-notebook.

You may have already figured this out, but resource recognition has a lot in common with natural observation. You are starting to look closely at things that have been ignored and overlooked to develop your homesteading skills.

Tomorrow, continue your simple homesteading journey with Garden Dreams and Compost Calculations.

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The Importance of Observation

How did we figure things out before the internet? Did we learn at school?

In the US, children weren’t required to attend school until about 100 years ago. As such, schools have only been a source of learning for large populations in recent times.

Did we learn from books? Books have been around for thousands of years. For most of that history, though, books were not widely available. It wasn’t really until about the 18th century, during the enlightenment, that books became available to all of us ordinary folks.

Did we learn from our parents and our community? Certainly, for most of human history, a good deal of learning came by way of other people. But, then how did we increase our knowledge? Did we just go out meet new people and ask them to give us their knowledge? Likely we did.

Yet how did those who taught others first learn? How did humans first determine what was safe and healthy to eat, what and where to drink, how to live?

There’s a lot of speculation on the subject of how early humans figured out what was safe to eat and how to create and use tools. We may not have fully unraveled those mysteries. However I know one thing for certain.

Before all these other methods of learning evolved, nature was our teacher. We are designed to learn directly from nature.

Many of us have forgotten how to learn from nature because we are so accustomed to learning by other methods. As a homesteader though, I promise you, nature is still a better teacher than any others you will have.

Predicting the Weather

Most of us can get weather predictions from a website or app  in just a click or two. But can you walk outside and know what kind of day it’s going to be?

I can.

Quite frankly, I am much more accurate at it than the meteorologists who report predictions for my area. I can literally feel if rain is coming, or snow, or warm, or wind – even hours to days before it happens.

I can also predict long-term trends accurately. I can tell whether winter will be exceptionally cold or not in August or September. I can come within a week of knowing our last frost day three months before it happens.

You can do all of this too if you put your mind to it.

How to Know What Nature Knows

I didn’t start out with this ability to predict the weather. I used to be as dependent on weather reports with limited accuracy as everyone else. But after years of carefully observing and recording the weather, my body and brain simply know what’s coming. 

I didn’t have to take a class on how to read the different cloud types. I didn’t have to attend a nature course to learn how to recognize the natural patterns around me.

All I did was start paying attention to the weather every day. I kept a notebook to record the date and the weather conditions. I also recorded anything that stood out related to the weather or the time of year.  Here are some examples of what I wrote down.

Peepers

I marked the first date I heard the peepers (singing tree frogs). Then, I marked when the peepers singing increased, when it stopped, the nights when it was so loud it almost broke my ear drums, and the nights they failed to sing.

Weeds

I recorded when new weeds appeared, when they started to look stressed, and when they disappeared from the landscape. If I didn’t know the name of the weed, I gave them one as a placeholder. Later, when I had time, I looked them up and learned as much as I could about them.

Blooms and Pollinators

I noted when flowers and weeds bloomed and what insects visited those plants. Again, if  didn’t know the exact name, I made up my own. As time allowed, I used online databases to identify them. I kept track of populations based on my perception.

Personal Physical Changes

I also noted physical changes in me. My body seemed to know things my brain didn’t. For example, even though we keep our house thermostat set to the same temperature most of the time, my toes are always cold on mornings when it’s cold and damp outside.

I have ringing in my ears before big, windy storms. My hair and fingernails start to grow noticeably faster a few weeks before our last frost each year.

The Expansion Effect

How to tell the weather is just the beginning of what you can learn from nature. Once you begin to make observation a habit, you quickly develop accurate, intuitive instincts for almost anything you do regularly.  For example, you begin to understand:

  • How to grow things well
  • How much liquid to add to anything (batter, soil, concrete) to get the right consistence
  • Whether something will fit in location or space
  • Whether or not a recipe, instruction set, or idea will work
  • How much things weigh without a scale
  • When to be cautious
  • When to charge ahead

Now, this doesn’t mean you will automatically listen to yourself on these subject. We’ve become accustomed to relying on external resources for our knowledge. So it can take a while before you truly trust your own natural expertise.

It can also take a while before your instincts begin to be right most of the time. A healthy dose of self-skepticism, at the outset, is not necessarily a bad thing.

Observation Triggers Intuition

Still, I know with certainty that the more time you spend observing the natural world, the more spillover you have into all the facets of your homesteading life.

I don’t know exactly why this is true. But I believe that once we begin using our powers of observation acutely for one thing, then they just keep working in everything else we do. Observation is like a muscle, the more you build it, the better it works.

Eventually, we simply become attuned to all the different forces at work in our various activities. We notice signals we missed before. We become better able to feel the answers.

Why Weather Observation

I am going to offer you some basic ideas on how to use weather observation as a gateway to expanding your observation skills. I chose weather because it is something we all already have around us. That makes it an equal opportunity tool for any new homesteader regardless of where or how you live.

Knowing your weather patterns is also critical to so much of your homestead planning and decision-making. Even if you are skeptical about the benefits of weather observations on something like baking a cake, knowing your weather patterns in general is still a key homesteading skill.

Though, please believe me, weather also makes a huge difference when making a cake. It also impacts ripening, harvesting, cheese-making, bread production, fruit and vegetable fermentation, seed germination, livestock behavior and so much more.

Useful Tools

You do not need to buy anything for this exercise. However, having access to a few tools will enhance the experience.

Notebook

It will be easier if you record your observations in a bound notebook so you can carry it with you and find all your observations in one place. But, if you don’t have one, you can also write them on scrap paper and then collect them in a grocery bag.

I know you may be tempted to record this in a text file or spreadsheet. That can be awesome for long-term data collection.  However, we have a tendency to forget data we store electronically since we know we can find it easily when we need it. Recording this information using a pen and a paper is like a signal to your body that this information needs to be integrated into your brain.

Trust me, writing it down is important. But you can also record it in an electronic file too if you want to use it later.

Gauges

Ideally you will want some way to confirm your own observations on the temperature, humidity, quantity of rain, and strength and direction of the wind.  You can use formal gauges for this like thermometers, barometers, rain gauges, and wind vanes.

If you don’t have the budget for these things, though, you can simply use the reported data from your closest weather station. Weather services like Weather Underground allow you access to the data from Personal Weather Stations (PWS) that might be much closer to you than the regional airports that may not accurately represent your conditions.

How to Start Observing the Weather

Now that you have chosen your tools, it’s time to start observing.  Personally, I recommend doing this three times a day to start.  When you wake up, mid-day, and evening.

  1. Step outside or open a window. If you can’t (e.g. you live in a high-rise or are stuck in an office), put your hand on a window and look outside.
  2. Look around you for clues as to the weather conditions.
    • Are leaves rustling? Is trash blowing? How fast, how hard? From which direction?
    • Is there frost, snow, rain, moisture, dryness? Does it seem hot, cold, in between?
    • What are people wearing?  What are animals doing?
    • What sounds do you hear? Do they seem louder than usual or more distant?
    • Does anything stand out to you outside or inside?
    • How does your body feel?
  3. Guess what the conditions are based on your observations.
    • Estimate the temperature
    • Estimate the wind speed and direction
    • Estimate the humidity level
    • Guess at how much rain or snow a given storm system will drop or whether rain or snow is likely
  4. Check your gauges or the reported conditions at your nearest weather station.
  5. Contemplate the similarities and differences between what you noticed and what was confirmed by the gauges or weather station.

Your observations may be way off base when you first start paying attention to the weather. Or, you may be a natural at this. For now, it doesn’t really matter how accurate or inaccurate you are. The real benefit comes simply from making observation a habit.

At some point in the future, you will become a walking weather station. It could take months or years depending on where you live, your background, and how consistently and completely you do this exercise each day.

Don’t worry about your performance, just keep at it as often as you can. Even if you can’t do it three times a day, or even every day, just do it as much as you can. The more often you do a thing, the better you get. However, even a little learning here and there can start to add up.†

Tomorrow, continue your simple homesteading journey with Recognizing Resources.

Seed Starting

Seeds may look like tiny, innocuous things. But they have the power to explode into life with the least bit of encouragement. Often, a little water and warmth can ignite that spark of transformation.

The Seed Life Cycle

The tiny living being that emerges has no idea what waits on the other side. All it knows is that when the conditions are right, it must try to become.

When soaked in water, the contents of the seed swell. This swelling expands the outer shell allowing the little life inside to begin to breath. As it breaths, it grows and develops until it bursts through the seed exterior. 

In the beginning, that little seedling is completely supported by nutrients from the seed and its own will to live. Within just a couple of days though, the seedling loses its independence. Then, it must rely on its environment to provide for its needs.

Tentatively, plant parts start to reach up for sun. Simultaneously, almost imperceptible roots reach down for nutrients in the soil. As the plant feels sun and tastes soil, it begins to grow.

Its original seed-breaking leaves, called cotyledons, eventually give way to true leaves. These leaves are tiny versions of what the mature plant leaves will look like. The delicate, young roots also branch and dig, anchoring themselves into the earth. 

The stem of the developing plant is something like a service elevator. Leaves use the stem to send encapsulated sunshine (or sugars) down to the roots. The roots use the stem to send nutrients and water drawn from the soil up to the leaves.

As long as that exchange of energy keeps happening, day by day, the roots grow deeper and wider and the plant grows taller and larger. This growth is very slow at first, but as the plant gains size, the growth speeds up.

Eventually, the plant bears fruit. All plants bear fruit in some way.

Fruit is a metaphor for the plants reproductive method. It may be the actual fruit, like an apple, that contains seeds. It may also be a flower head that produces seeds. Sometimes it is fat roots that store enough energy to send up new plants (e.g. ginger rhizomes and potato tubers). 

The dream of a seed is to grow into a plant so that it can send more seeds out into the world. In other words, it wants to be fruitful and multiply. 

The Intricacies of Seed Life

That’s a very simple explanation of the seed life cycle. But most people don’t even look that closely at this magical process that forms the basis of life as we know it. When you do begin to pay attention, it becomes obvious that all life starts from some kind of seed which is either nurtured, or not, by the environment around it

Gardeners know better though. We realize how delicate, hopeful, and incredible seed life is. We respect this process and depend on it to sustain our bodies and our souls.

For example, we know that some seeds will only start when exposed to warmth, moisture, and sunlight. If the outer seed skin can’t feel the sunlight, or something like it, then nothing happens.

Other seeds will only germinate in darkness. They must believe they are enveloped in soil to attempt the treacherous trek from seed to a living, breathing plant form. 

Frankly, some seeds are simply too weak to spark to life even when offered the perfect conditions. That’s why we always start more seeds than we need. We are hopeful, yet we are also practical. 

We gardeners also know that even the strongest seeds only grow into healthy plants with proper encouragement. We do this by starting our seeds in loose disease-free soil. We add fertilizer and water as necessary for growth. Then we ensure warmth or coolness and sun or shade to make our plants feel at home. Much like taking care of any baby, proper care is essential to plant growth. 

The Homesteading Life Cycle

Homesteading is also very much like this. Your dream of homesteading is like the seed. With the right conditions, it can spark a whole new life for you. However, you have to create the right conditions for that to happen. 

To sprout the seed, you must commit to start homesteading now. That act alone will generate all the energy you need to break through and actually begin living your dreams. 

Yet, to grow the dream from its early development phases to something grand and life-encompassing, you must also feed it.  Similar to the way the leaves and the roots work together,  in homesteading your mind and body must also work together to grow your dream. 

The Mind Body Connection

You must learn new concepts with your mind. Then you must practice them with your body. Many people who want to become homesteaders stop at the learning part. They gather so much information but never put it to use. 

The result is basically like sprouts grown on your counter. They start out with all the promise of a new plant. Without soil though, they will never become more than sprouts. 

Some people stay at the sprout phase of homesteading. They try a new recipe that is closer to cooking from scratch. Or, they buy some herbs from the garden center and grow them in a sunny window sill until the plants get root bound or light deprived and start to die.

There’s nothing wrong with doing these things. However, if you really want to grow to your full potential, you need to follow the entire life cycle of your dream, from seed to seed. You must germinate your ideas, feed them, and give them the care they require to be fruitful. 

For today, it is enough to understand the magic contained within the seed. Soak in this idea of how seeds become plants, how dreams become realities. Revel in the absolute wonder of the fact that something so small and seemingly inert can be the basis of an entire new life. 

Time to Try

If you are feeling adventurous, and have the time, then why not also try to sprout some seeds to begin developing a deeper understanding of how things grow. 

Don’t just go through the motions.  Pay attention to the process.

Write down observations like how long you needed to soak your seeds until they swelled or how long it took them to germinate. Also, notice if any of the conditions in your home seem to have an impact on the seeds. Did most of the seeds sprout during the day when your house was warmer or at night when it was cooler?

Observation is one of your best tools for becoming an effective homesteader. Start practicing it every day. 

How to Grow Sprouts

Most of us are used to seeing or eating the mung bean sprouts from the grocery store. However, that’s just the beginning of what you can sprout. If you can eat the leaves and seeds of a plant, then you can generally eat its sprouts too. 

What to Sprout

For this exercise, you probably don’t need to buy anything.

Do you have any dried whole beans  in the pantry (pinto, Northern, kidney, cranberry, turtle, black-eyed peas, lentils, etc.)?  Start with those. 

If you don’t have any whole beans, then you may need to buy those. But you can get them for a couple dollars at any grocery store and most convenience stores. 

Easy Sprouting Tray

Next, do you have any plastic take-out food containers or other inexpensive plastic storage container to sacrifice to this project? Flat, rectangular containers work really well. However, any container will do. 

Because your seed begins to breath from the moment is saturated with water, poke a couple holes in the lid of your container to allow for airflow.  Those takeout lids tend to crack when you poke them with a knife, so I typically only make one hole on each side of the lid. 

For Straining

Other than that, all you need is a fine sieve to strain your soaked beans.

If you don’t have one of those, a colander lined with a thin towel or part of an old sheet will work too.

Basically, you just need something that will allow you to strain the excess water from your beans without damaging them. 

Start Sprouts

start sprouts

As with any food preparation, wash your hands and clean up your kitchen work area and utensils before getting started.  

  1. Wash your beans thoroughly by putting them in a fine sieve, or towel-lined colander, under your running faucet for several minutes. Cold water is fine.
  2. Spread your seeds in your container and cover them with water to soak for 4-12 hours or until they plump. 
  3. Once your beans are plump, strain away the extra water using the sieve or towel-lined colander. Then wash them again. 
  4. Spread the beans out in your container so each bean gets good airflow. Put your punctured lid on top to increase the warmth inside the container and help maintain the humidity. 
  5. Twice a day, transfer your beans back into your sieve or colander, run water over them, and then spread them out in your container again. Washing keeps the beans moist and prevents mold and bacteria from building up.
  6. After a couple days of doing this, your beans will start to sprout. At this point, stop transferring them to the sieve or colander. Instead, just add water to your container and then carefully tip it sideways to drain completely. 
  7. Within 1-2 days of germination, your sprouts are ready to eat. Shake lose the seed shells and enjoy. 

Safety Warning

Similar to eating any uncooked vegetable product (e.g. lettuce, spinach) that has come into contact with potential soilborne pathogens, all seeds may contain E. Coli, Salmonella, Listeria, etc.. As such, your sprouts may be a potential source of foodborne illness. 

I personally eat them raw all the time. But, food safety experts say the only safe way to eat a sprout is fully cooked. Please use your own discretion on eating raw agricultural products.

One Skill, Multiple Uses

Once you have an understanding of how seeds germinate, you can use this information to start an entire garden or food forest. There are a few more steps involved after starting seeds. However, it begins with a seed and the courage to start something new.

Down the road, when you add livestock to your homestead, you can use your knowledge of sprouting seeds with water, warmth, and light to grow fodder for your livestock. The only difference between growing sprouts on your counter and growing it on a grand scale for your livestock, are the tools used.  

In homesteading, all skills are simple, sometimes they are just scaled up to a level that makes them appear complicated. Sprouting seeds on your counter is only the beginning of something much bigger. †

Tomorrow, continue your journey with The Importance of Observation