A Homestead Tour

I recently posted a photo tour of our homestead on my other blog (which is more of a personal journal). I wanted to share the link to that post here too so you can see the power of simple homesteading to transform a landscape.

Before you link out to the photos, though, let me share one bit of homestead advice with you.

Homesteading Doesn’t Have to Be Hard!

Lately I’ve been coming across lots of posts about how hard homesteading is. I read about how much time people spend, their heartbreaks, and all their challenges and expenses. My own experience is very different. I find homesteading relaxing, easy, and infinitely rewarding.

There can be a bit of mental stress occasionally. For example, I don’t love processing animals. So, I eat a lot less meat than I used to. But let’s face it, that’s better for the planet anyway.

And yes, there’s also some work involved. But I do much less work to grow my own food than I used to do to earn the money to buy organic food from the grocery store. There are costs such as to buy compost or supplement feed my livestock. Those costs, though, add up to much less than what I used to spend eating out at poor quality restaurants. Even building things like a duck house or buying trees to plant cost less than what I used to spend just on maintaining a grass lawn.

If you try to add homesteading on top of everything else you already do, it probably is very hard. If you instead take simple steps toward self-sufficiency and let go of old habits to make room for new, it doesn’t have to be hard at all.

Now, here’s that link to the photo tour showing what we managed to do on our homestead over the past 6 years.

Homestead Photo Tour

Fast-Track to Greater Self-Sufficiency

Creating a functioning homestead takes time, effort, and resources. It’s not something you should rush into or do without careful planning. Yet, often in the middle of a crises, we feel an overwhelming urgency to make radical changes to increase our sense of security. Unfortunately, that can be the hardest time to get started.

Fear can drive us to make quick decisions that aren’t our best options. Rather than rushing into homesteading without a plan, why not work on a few things you can do right away to feel more at ease in these times of turmoil?

Self-Sufficiency Hacks

This recent post that I wrote for Morning Chores will help you get started.

Also, below are a few extra resources to help you take some of actions on that list.

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)

For one of those 20 items, I mention signing up for a CSA or a local produce subscription from a farmer near you. You can use this resource to find a CSA near you (or to add one if you are a farmer not already on this list).

Local Harvest Farm and CA finder

Study Herbal Medicine

That’s mugwort drying on my oven rack.

One of the things I mention on that list is to learn herbal medicine. Personally, I grow medicinal herbs to support my basic health and provide vitamins and minerals my body needs. I use them frequently in cooking and tea blending. I also make herbal infusions, tinctures, and salves for things such as relaxation, treatment of minor injuries, help with digestion, improving gut health, strengthening my immune system in winter and periods of stress, and to get better rest.

These kind of basic, low-risk herbal medicine skills are something that I think any conscientious homesteader can learn through self-study and careful experimentation. However, even for the basics and especially when you move beyond basic skills, it’s extremely important to get your information from sources with long-term practical experience.

Good ReSources

For example, I occasionally write articles about herbs with medicinal benefits (when assigned by an editor). I do detailed research and compile information on those herbs, but I don’t offer detailed prescriptive advice.

That’s because I’m not even remotely qualified to tell someone else how to treat a medical condition or to ascertain herb safety for them. It takes years of experience and study to achieve that kind of authority. When you read articles on herbal medicine written by someone like me (e.g. not a 20 year clinical herbal medicine practitioner), you should always treat it as an overview and a starting point for deeper research.

Whole Person Herbal Medicine

I also suggest you be extremely wary of any herbal medicine articles that offer quick fixes to complex health problems. For herbal medicine to be useful, you need to treat the whole person, not just the ailment. It’s not like when you go to the doctor and they give you a pill to bring down your blood pressure.

Herbal medicine practitioners examine your diet, lifestyle, health history, physical symptoms, mental state, and more to determine treatment protocols. There’s also a lot of experimentation to determine dosing and effectiveness. For that you need to work with, and learn from, people who have devoted their lives to the herbal medicine discipline.

Eclectic School of Herbal Medicine

Fortunately, I live just a few miles away from people just like this. Thomas Easley, one of the author’s of The Modern Herbal Dispensatory, is the director and founder of the Eclectic School of Herbal Medicine in Lowgap, North Carolina.

You can find lots of great free information on their blog. They often have free classes you can attend online. Or, you can sign up for a full course of study.

Other Schools

There are other qualified schools out there. But, since I just happen to know a lot about this one I wanted to share their links. If you have links to schools near you, run by extremely qualified life-long herbal medicine practitioners, please feel free to share them by using the comments section below.

Homestead Planning

Medlar Flowering

By taking a few steps to increase your access to local food, strengthening community relationships, and managing your health at home, you can improve your self-sufficiency and your state of mind in the near term. Then, you’ll be in a good place to tackle the next steps like identifying resources, starting a garden, and bringing home livestock.

Harvesting, Preserving, and Propagating Spring Herbs

Each year in early to mid-spring, my perennial herbs start putting on huge amounts of new growth. In order to keep those plants tame, make them bushier, keep evergreens from becoming woody, and delay premature flowering, harvesting quite a bit of that early growth is necessary.

It seems counter intuitive to harvest heavily when plants are just getting growing for the season. However if you think about it, now while conditions for growth are good, plants have the best chance to recover before summer heat, insect pests, and less rain start causing stress. They also have lots of time to put on new leaves, collect sun and develop deeper, broader reaching roots before winter.

Harvest Spring Herbs Fearlessly

So, if you are new to harvesting perennial herbs, do so fearlessly in spring! You can cut back 30% of your second year herbs, or those that you buy mature from the garden center, in one go. Then, once the plant recovers and begins growing you can harvest intermittently until flowering.

As of today (April 11), in my climate, I’ve started cutting bunches of rosemary, thyme, several mints, and oregano. I also have some perennial spices in the greenhouse that I have been harvesting leaves from. These include allspice and bay laurel leaves. (Allspice is grown commercially for its berries. But, at home the delicious leaves can be used in cooking just like bay laurel or added to tea blends).

I have also started pruning plants like lavender and true hyssop that are grown primarily for their flower buds. By doing this now, I ensure even more flowers as a result of plants branching in response to early pruning.

Harvesting and Pruning Flowering Herbs

Whether you are pruning or harvesting, the process is the same. You want to cut back the top few inches into just a bit of the old growth or right above it. This will spur new growth without risking the health of the plant. Aim to cut just about 1/5th -1/4th of an inch above the last set of leaf nodes before your cut.

Extend Fresh Herb Life

Some of those cut herbs you can save to use fresh. Wrap them in a moist paper towel and put them in your crisper to keep them fresh. Or put the bottom part of the stems in a shallow pan of water and stand them up in the fridge. Just remove a few leaves at the bottom to keep the water from becoming moldy. Change the water every day or two to keep it fresh.

Start New Plants

Incidentally, if you want to start new plants from your cuttings, just leave the fresh herbs in water on your counter. As long as you harvest the entire stem, not just the leaves, many spring harvested herbs will easily grow roots in water.

Change the water daily since it loses freshness faster at room temperature. Once you have roots, replant in the garden or a pot.

Dry Herbs Easily

for herbs you can’t use right away, dry them. Tie herbs in small bunches and hang them in protected area out of direct sunlight. Or, use my favorite method.

Spread a bamboo mat (like those used to roll sushi) over your oven racks and lay herbs flat on the mat. If you’re oven has lit pilot, it will be plenty dry and warm in there to speed up the process. If not, then turn on your oven light to generate extra heat.

When herbs are dry, break the leaves into cooking sized bits in a paper bag. Pick out large stems. Then store the rest in an airtight container. After a few weeks of storing, the aroma of your dried herbs will intensify. That’s when they’re ready to use to make your own herb and spice blends.

Ginger Saver

If you cut the peelings off your fresh ginger, dry those on your bamboo mat to use as powdered ginger for your baking and other needs. No reason to waste the best part!

Herbs for All Seasons

If you harvest your perennial herbs fresh in spring and preserve them using simple drying and storing techniques, you’ll have a year-round supply with very little work. There is nothing like the crisp, clean flavor of lemon thyme or the savory scents of sage and rosemary in the deep of winter. Savor the flavor of spring anytime with your homegrown preserved herbs!

Potager Gardening in a Crisis

The COVID-19 virus has made it difficult for grocery stores to keep shelves stocked. I visited the grocery for the first time in a month and was surprised to see so many shelves empty. Toilet paper, of course, was no where to be found. But, other things like flour, eggs, butter, and many fresh vegetables were in short supply too.

Seeing so many of our necessities and favorites missing from the shelves makes us feel especially vulnerable in tough times. So, many people are trying to reclaim a little control for their food supply by starting vegetable gardens.

More gardeners is a great thing. But it’s happening at a hard time. Seed sellers are seeing explosions in sales. Some sellers have had to cut off seed access to non-farmers because demand is so high and supply chains weren’t ready for this much sudden interest. But even in a crisis, with supply shortages, there are still things you can do to get started gardening.

Most importantly, remember that no matter what, the basics are the same. You have to prepare your soil. You have to plan your layout, even if it’s just a temporary. If you aren’t already composting, start now! If you can vermicompost – even better!

Check out my collection of potager posts to help you get started.

Finding Seeds and Plants

Once you do those things, the challenge of finding seeds and plants remains. So, here are some ideas to help you get started right now… even if you can’t get seeds delivered from online sellers.

  1. Ask gardeners you know to share a few seeds (using social distancing pick-ups).
  2. Local vegetable farmers may sell plant starts. (Even those that normally don’t sell plants, might be willing to now. So ask.)
  3. You can also start many things from cuttings including all of your herbs. Get these at the grocery or from friends and neighbors yards (with permission).
  4. You can start sweet potato slips from the sweet potatoes you get at the grocery store. Also, sweet potato vines can be cooked like spinach. So even if you don’t have 120 warm days to grow these for tubers, you can grow them just for the greens.
  5. The seeds in store bought pumpkins, squash, cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, and more can be planted. They are likely hybrids, so the plant you get will be completely different than the one you planted from. But it will most likely still be edible.
  6. You can also use the crowns of celery, romaine lettuce, carrots, parsnips, and others to grow more. Just put the base in water (changed daily) until roots form. Then plant in your garden.
  7. Even though it’s not ideal, you can also use store bought potatoes as seed potatoes. Soak the tubers in water for a couple hours to expunge any growth retardants. Place in a warm location until eyes form. Then use 2-3 ounce pieces as seed potatoes.
  8. Onions, garlic, and ginger from the store can also be planted. The tops of these three plants are edible too. So, you may want to grow them just for the greens. Ginger needs warm weather to grow.
  9. Dried grocery store beans can also be used as seeds. Just plant extras because germination rates will be low.
  10. Even your spice seeds such as dried mustard and coriander can be used in a bind.

Note for items from the grocery store because these are mass harvested, the plants they produces aren’t likely to be the best, most productive, or beautiful. They also have a higher risk for plant pathogens than certified disease free seeds and plants. Yet, in a crisis, if this is all you have to work with, it’s certainly worth trying.

Fertilizer

Also, although no one lines to think about it under normal circumstances, diluted urine makes a perfect fertilizer. Don’t apply to plant leaves. Instead apply to the soil. You can read my post about using urine in the garden on Morning Chores.

Also, before you say “gross” think about this fact. All organic garden soil is loaded with the excrement and dead bodies of decomposed of insects, bacteria, fungi, and others. It also contains bird poop from the birds who fly over or eat pests. Oh and, commercial farmers who sell at grocery stores use industrial sewage and feed lot manure to fertilize field crops.

Closing the loop by using waste to add nutrients to soil is the foundation of sustainable agriculture. We just have to be smart about how we do it.

Soil Compaction

Most soils have some minerals. But many are simply too compacted to grow in. It will take some work, but if you can dig up your soil and mix it with mulched leaves, you can very quickly improve the structure so that you can at least grow some kinds of vegetables.

Ideally, you’ll also add well-aged compost. But that can also be hard to find these days. So, work with what you have.

Care and Share

Especially when gardening in non-ideal conditions, good plant care is the key to getting a crop. Water regularly, weed often, add compost as soon as you have it, mulch with a light layer of grass clippings or paper, and hand pick insects if you see multiples.

Finally, always remember, nature is built on sharing not hoarding. Share your extras. Share what you learn. Then, you’ll not only grow a garden, but a strong community that often shares exactly what you you need in surprising ways.

Choosing the Right Plants for Your Garden

Choosing the plants that will grow well in your climate, weather, soil type, and garden is quite complicated. That’s why a big part of becoming a good gardener is learning how to read your landscape, understand your conditions, and carefully select plants that are most likely to thrive where you live.

If you want to learn more about all the intricacies involved in careful plant selection, then check out my post on MorningChores.com.

Also, remember to give any new plant a little extra care until you are certain it is happy and habituated to its new home. Start with good soil, water regularly, and fertilize organically with compost, compost tea, or slow-release bagged mixes that won’t be toxic for all the beneficial organisms that live in your soil.

Urban, Suburban, and Rural Homesteading

Did you know that you can homestead anywhere? Homesteading is a basic set of life skills that can be practiced wherever you live right now. So don’t let a lack of land limit your dreams. Make up for a shortage of acreage with creativity and access to awesome resources!

Here’s an article I wrote for Morning Chores on the various pros and cons of homesteading in different locations to help you get started.

How to Choose the Right Duck Breeds

If you are looking for inspiration to help you choose the right duck breeds for your homestead, take a look at my post on Morning Chores.

While you are there, take a few minutes to browse all the other informative homestead posts and inspiration on that amazing reference site. There are all sorts of livestock tips, plant growing guides, food preparation and preservation details, and more.

In particular, you may find these free calculator tools useful for garden and livestock care.

The Little Yellow Duck House and Mirabelle Plums

I absolutely love ducks, so it’s not a shocker that my first homestead project of the year was duck related. I re-purpuposed a small, semi-mobile chicken coop into a larger duck house. Essentially, I sat the coop on a 4 x 4 frame, over a couple layers of recycled cinder blocks and end caps.

Two Runner ducks, two Welsh Harlequins, two Rouens, a White Crested, and a Khaki Campbell are the new residents in my chicken coop turned duck house. The ducks don’t actually live in the coop. Instead, the ducks live beneath it in direct contact with soil in the earthen underparts inside the cinder blocks.

The coop itself is still intact. I can use the old ramp opening, my chickens used to use, to reach in and collect eggs. However, I usually let these ducks out at daybreak, before they would normally lay. So, I’ll also offer them private nest spaces outside the coop come spring.

I’ve done a lot of experimentation with duck housing and spacing. I’ve even let them pick their shelters. My small flocks opt for cozy, damp spaces without light when dark approaches. (By contrast, larger flocks prefer the pond as nighttime protection even over a large, ideal duck house.)

The challenge, though, is keeping a cozy duck house from becoming a stinkpot. To solve that issue, I situated their new home on a slight slope at the base of a larger hill. When it rains, a bit of extra water washes into their earthen residence and helps the manure percolate into the ground. Of course, during droughts, I’ll have to be the rain.

The soil around and under the house is fast-draining and teeming with soil life because I’ve been adding organic matter there for years. So far there is no smell, but we’ll see if that’s still true in August. I also put down a layer of hardware cloth to keep diggers from accessing my ducks in their night shelter. But I am not using bedding at all.

Rain flows into the duck house and washes manure into the soil so the house is essentially self-cleaning.

The run was inspired by the idea of chicken chunnels. It’s about a 45 feet long and nestled between my goat pasture and my primary vegetable garden. It spans 4 to 5 feet in width. I’ll be adding a bamboo top soon to give the ducks shade before the weather warms up.

The fencing on the right is home to a line of wild blackberries in the spring and summer. The ducks will keep those briers from crossing into the formal garden, while enjoying eating the berries and leaves they can reach. The yellow fence on the left will grow something viney, but I haven’t decided what yet. That soil will have too much nitrogen from the ducks to grow legumes. So, I am thinking maybe hops, nasturtium, or Maypop vines could be light weight alternatives.

The yellow fencing is made using old grape vine posts (compliments of our friends Ken and Kari at Round Peak vineyards). Then, I doubled up two lengths of frayed fire hazard electric poultry netting that is no longer useful with a charger, but is perfectly suitable to confine ducks. I used additional posts as weights at the bottom of the fence for stability and to keep ducks from, well, ducking under. (Sorry, had to!)

Gently down slope of the duck house is an edible landscape areas with fruits and berries. The idea is that the manure in the run soaks into the soil and is dispersed by microlife to the nearby plants. I have used this logic with ducks for several years and it works incredibly well.

The big question is… will this work with Mirabelle plums?

Mirabelle Plums

The Mirabelle plum trees are separated by Aronia berry bushes. They are dormant in this photo but those two plants make beautiful companions in spring. I just really hope they also love their new duck neighbors! The goats sure seem too.

Against my better plant judgement, I am attempting to grow Mirabelle plums in North Carolina. I first encountered these amazing fruits in Northern parts of France like Normandy and Nancy. Though, they are more common in Lorraine.

Mirabelle are the sweetest, most fragrant, yet diminutive plums I have ever eaten. So, even though I might be crazy, I still had to try to grow them.

The climates where Mirabelles grow well have cool summers and moderate winters. Meanwhile, we have erratic winters and summers that start mild but end hot, humid and drought prone.

For the past two years, my Mirabelle trees have survived only by dropping their leaves in late July and putting them back on a few weeks later. This process of leaf drop is stressful on the young plants and puts them at risk for not storing enough nutrients to survive winter and bud in spring. Yet, it saves them from succumbing to death by overheating.

I am hoping that the cooling and nourishing effect of having a shaded duck run slightly uphill of the Mirabelles will drop the soil temperature a few degrees, and keep those plants well-hydrated during our hot summers. If that works, perhaps they can stay cool enough without leaf dropping.

It’s January and the Mirabelles are having their winter rest. The ducks are enjoying the henbit, deadnettle, annual grasses, and bitter cress that sprouted in our winter warm streak. So, it will be a while before I know if my two loves – ducks and Mirabelles – also love each other.

Still, seeing my beautiful ducks make themselves at home in their new run and yellow duck house gives me hope for a Mirabelle plum-filled future. And since my favorite spring and summer seating area is just 20 feet from the duck house, I’ll have the perfect front row seat to watch that relationship evolve.

Meyer Lemon Love

If you are looking for a plant to make you happy mid-winter, let me tell you about these glorious golden globes pictured above. These luscious lovelies make the whole month of January feel like it’s lit with radiant summer sunshine. On cloudy days, or when I just need a winter pick me up, I head to he greenhouse to basque in their yellow luminescence.

Meyer Lemons

In case you are wondering how I grow such gigantic lemons, then let me introduction you Meyer lemons. These are actually a cross between a lemon and an orange. They taste like super sweet lemons and grow as big as large oranges. So, while I am quite proud of my lemon size, I can’t take all the credit. This plant’s genetics play a big role.

How to Use

Meyer lemon rinds are perfect for candying, using to make homemade limoncello, and in just about any recipe that calls for lemon zest. (For limoncello, infuse vodka or white rum with the rinds of about 5-6 lemons for two weeks. Strain, then sweeten with sugar to your desired taste.)

The juice is perfect for lemonade. Squeeze and freeze it in ice cube trays. Then store the frozen cubes in baggies to use to make fresh lemonade whenever you need it.

These lemons are particularly wonderful to use for making homemade paneer cheese. Heat the cheese to nearly boiling, then squeeze in the lemon juice to trigger coagulation. After that, strain the curds through a flour sack towel and hang to dry for a few hours. It takes the juice of one lemon for every gallon of milk.

Tip: Throw in a few fenugreek seeds while heating your milk to make an extra aromatic paneer. The lemon and maple notes blend perfectly together.

Care Notes

My tree is planted in the ground near the center of my greenhouse. Soil pH in the root zone is about 6.0.

Temperatures stay above 35℉ at night in winter. During the day, winter temperatures in the greenhouse range between 50-80℉. In spring and summer the greenhouse is around 70 ℉ at night and 80-85℉ during day. The tree is protected from frost and there’s no wind.

It gets plenty of filtered sunshine. I add compost and mulch annually. I water deeply about once a month. I’m also growing several shallow rooted or potted shade plants over the lemon root zone. I water them more often, so some residual water filters down to keep the top few inches of soil moist.

I grow this more like a bush. I prune only for height and width. I also use coconut rope to wrap around the branches and tie them to each other. This creates a kind of self-supporting cage for the fruit heavy branches.

Growth Habit

I’ve grown as many as 5-6 giant lemons on one branch. The lemons all grow large and don’t seem to mind not being thinned. The key is just to make sure the branches are supported so they don’t fold and crack.

Fertilizer

As far as fertilizer goes, my tree gets compost tea when watered. It also gets fresh liquid gold applications at least weekly. (For those of you not familiar with the term liquid gold, that means we occasionally pee near the root zone. No sense in wasting nature’s perfect nitrogen source!)

Time to Harvest

I bought a 4 inch potted tree, in spring, three years go. The first year it produced 4 lemons, the second 8 lemons, this year we stopped counting at 60 lemons. The tree begins flowering in January while the lemons are nearly all ripe. It continues to flower until March.

Magically then, despite the long flowering period, the fruit all ripen within just a few weeks of each other in January. So you get amazingly aromatic lemons and blossoms at the same time!

Lemon Love

If you can create the right conditions for year-round growing, or live in a climate where citrus thrives, fresh Meyer lemons can make the dark days of winter feel sunshine-filled. Plus chef’s love them – even homested cooks like me can appreciate the exceptional quality and taste profile of this winter beauty.

Cilantro and Coriander

Is it an herb or a spice? Am I a girl or a woman? I was a girl once, but now age and experience have made me a woman. This is very much the same with cilantro and coriander.

The bright green, fanning, lace like leaves with their brash, tangy, citrusy flavor and exuberant aroma are the youthful, immature stage of the plant. As the plant ages, it grows taller, more slender and elegant. Delicate umbel flowers develop and open.

As it reaches the age of wisdom, those flowers give way to seeds that impart knowledge dating back thousands of years and have the power to launch thousands of new generations.

Coriander is the culmination. The life’s work of the cilantro plant. Its enduring legacy. Or perhaps, the coriander/cilantro difference is just a retail device to distinguish leaves from seeds.

In fact, many cultures only have one word to describe both the leaves and the seeds of this ancient herb and spice. In the US, coriander came by way of European settlers as early as 1670. Yet, it was popularized on supermarket shelves for it’s utility in “Mexican” food.

I use Mexican in quotes because the truth is much of the cuisine deemed Mexican in the US could be Peruvian, Bolivian, Salvadorian, Ecuadorian, and more. In fact, the herb you find in dishes in Latin American countries might actually be a completely unrelated herb called Culantro.

Culantro can be shade grown even in tropical climates. Though, subject to bolting as days grow long, it is a bit more durable in the heat than cool season cilantro.

The most incredible thing to me though isn’t why we call these plants what we call them. It’s that nearly every country on earth has at least one name for this amazing edible treasure. That’s because it is so universally recognized for its culinary utility.

Grow it, eat it, love it, share it!

General Knowledge and Fascinating Facts

Coriander root is also edible and delicious.

Growing Cilantro/Coriander

Recipes and Uses

One of my favorite ways to use and preserve cool season cilantro is to ferment it. Coursly chop the leaves. Weight them. Add 2% salt by weight to the leaves. Stir until the leaves begin expressing liquid. Then, mash into a jar.

You can put fermentation weights and a lid on this. Then let it sit in a warm location out of direct light for 3-7 days.

Or you can tuck some washed, scavenged rocks in a plastic baggy and use those to weight your ferment in the jar. Then, fold the baggy over the rim of the jar and wrap with a rubber band. This creates your air lock. Once a day, remove the rubber band and fold up the sides to let the ferment off glass for a few seconds. Then, close.

After those 3-7 days, use your fermented cilantro on tacos, in salsa, as a garnish for soup, tossed in salads, or any other place where you regularly use cilantro.

Here are some of my other favorite uses from around the web.