Homesteading Feed

Learn the Skills to Inherit Property! The SKIP Kickstarter

Say you dream of a homestead of your own but have no idea how to go about getting one. You need land, but that's expensive; you need skills, but those are hard to come by. What if I told you there was a program designed to earn you both?

It's called SKIP, for Skills to Inherit Property. And there's a Kickstarter going on right now for the SKIP bible - a book pulling all the SKIP lessons into one volume.

Here's creator Paul Wheaton to explain the idea behind the SKIP program and book:

Millions of people are blocked from homesteading because of the sheer expense of getting started.  And millions of elderly people are frustrated that they cannot find somebody worthy to pass their homestead to.  Every year hundreds of thousands of homesteads are abandoned - with the government taking possession about half the time.

Other homestead owners are looking for land managers or caretakers.  Or some sort of collaboration.  But their efforts have led to horrific results from dishonest or even criminal people - so their homesteads are, effectively abandoned.

People with homesteads are seeking people with REAL experience and skill.

People seeking homesteading opportunities want to build REAL experience and skill.

This book is an attempt to bridge these two communities.  People seeking homesteading opportunities are provided a way to accomplish hundreds of things and document them for free.  Eventually, they will be able to peruse hundreds of homestead opportunities.   And people with homesteads will be able to peruse hundreds of homesteaders that have proven their worth.

Active homesteaders use SKIP to build their skills for their own benefit.  The verification of their skills lends weight to their words on our forums.  Some people already have land and use SKIP to build their skills for caring for their land.

One thing we can tell you is that we've personally benefitted from our involvement in the permaculture community responsible for this Kickstarter, Permies.com, our weekly go-to for support of our gardening and permaculture projects. Whether it's helpful hints for going sugar-free in our baking, a possible remedy for galls, or a fantastic discussion on honeybees vs. native bees, Permies is the one online community we can count on.

Here's a handy link to the Kickstarter, where you can learn more!

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A Small, Good Thing You Can Do to Fight Climate Change - Without Breaking the Bank or Changing Your Diet

Pipewrap6

By Lisa Brunette

It's become fashionable these days to opt for trendy eco-solutions, such as driving a hybrid gas/electric vehicle or becoming a vegan. I'm guilty as charged - we still own a Toyota Prius, and I was a vegetarian for about 13 years, and a vegan for a good portion of that. However, as is the case with a lot of shiny new objects, they might not do any more good than the original thing they replaced, or the gain is minimal at best and usually involves some tradeoff.

Without traveling too far down the rabbit hole, you probably have already heard that the Prius (and other hybrids like it) isn't all it's cracked up to be when it comes to eco-friendliness. Its mass production, which requires parts from all over the world shipped to assembly plants all over the world, itself carries a huge carbon footprint, and of course its expensive battery is comprised of toxic materials. Even the Prius' energy-efficient status has been a matter of debate. There's a now-infamous Top Gear episode that illustrates all of this, fashioned for its gearhead audience, of course, but the point is that the Prius ain't no eco slam dunk.

And neither is going vegan. While a lot of ire has been directed at meat-eating due to methane's effect on climate change, the truth is livestock is a relatively minor contributor in the overall picture of emissions versus heavyweights like energy use by industry and transportation. Check out the below chart, showing data compiled by the independent, reader-supported organization Our World in Data (shared via open access through the Creative Commons BY license).

Emissions-by-sector-–-pie-charts

 

Given the above, let's say you decide to replace your meat protein with plant-based sources. What little you remove from that 5.8% currently in the Livestock & Manure category gets shifted over to the other categories under Agriculture, Forestry, & Land Use - that is, unless you plan to sustainably grow all of your plant-based protein sources yourself, or commit to sourcing them all from completely sustainable soybean farms and tofu makers using artisan, small-batch techniques, etc., and not from the usual suspects, since soybeans are a huge monoculture crop, and these contribute to soil depletion and water-supply contamination. You see how it is.

It's not that I'm against vegetarianism or veganism. If that's what you want to do, there are a lot of reasons for you to do it, and more power to ya. Not everyone's health supports that diet (mine doesn't, as it turns out), but if yours does, yay for you. Just don't think you can switch to veggie burgers and then call it a day on the climate front.

What's most interesting about the above emissions data is that such a high percentage - 10.9%, or nearly double what's attributed to livestock and manure - comes from residential buildings. But don't waste time feeling guilty about that; rather, think of it as an eco-opportunity: Now this is an area where an individual can make a big difference - and without a whole lot of effort. That's encouraging!

I realize this was a long lead-in to the small, good thing I promised you with the headline on this post, but I really wanted to make the case for it since what I'm about to suggest you do might make your eyes glaze over. I mean, if energy efficiency were as sexy as Priuses and vegan cafés, we might not be in this climate change mess in the first place.

And here it is, my big eco tip of the day: WRAP YOUR PIPES.

Pipewrap1
On the left, an insulated, or "wrapped" pipe. On the right, not wrapped.

That's right. I said wrap your pipes. Not your windpipes or your half-pipes. Your water pipes, the ones in your house. The ones coming up from your basement or crawlspace, the pipes that bring water to your bathtub, kitchen faucet, washer, dishwasher - you name it. I'm suggesting you insulate those pipes so that when the water's heated by your hot water heater, it doesn't cool off while it's making its way to your shower head.

Pipewrap2
Voila! Both pipes wrapped. Yeah, you can wrap the cold ones, too. Colder water when it's hot out!

It's funny because I'm old enough to remember the 70s, when many people did this kind of thing like it was a given. But for some reason, hardly anyone does it anymore. But I just know you're going to, because it's easy, it can make a clear, positive impact on climate change, and to top it all off, it will actually save you money.

What if you don't own your own home? Ask your landlord if you can wrap your apartment building pipes in exchange for money off your rent. Keep your receipts and show him. Tell him to compare his utility bills before and after.

Pipewrap3
Pipe wrapping, in process.

OK, so how do you wrap your pipes? It's pretty durn easy. Don't hire someone to do this; you can do it yourself in one afternoon. The steps:

  1. Measure your pipe diameters. Our house is 117 years old, so we had several pipe diameters from different eras. This is important to know because the insulation tubes come in varying diameters. Make sure you get the right size. 
  2. Head to your local hardware store (ours has been in business as long as our house has stood here) and buy the pipe wrap tubes. They come in convenient sheaths that look like super-skinny pool noodles, but with a slit down one side. The slit has adhesive on both sides under a strip you can remove just as you get the pipe cover in place. There are also elbow joint-shaped covers and T-joints. You might need those.
  3. Come home and wrap the pipes, cutting them to size, bending them if need be. Even though the pipe covers stick together with that adhesive strip, you might also want to wrap the pipes with duct tape. We did.
Pipewrap5
The pipe wrap, like so many skinny pool noodles. Photo bomb, courtesy Chaco.

And that's it. That's all you have to do.

We spent just over $100 for the pipe wrap and tape, nothing more. And we've already seen results.

I launched us into this project at the very beginning of February, just as the forecasts for severe winter storms were trailing in. After we wrapped the pipes, we had single-digit and below-zero temperatures (Fahrenheit) for more than two weeks, with a foot of snow on the ground (a lot for this area). The cold temps persisted through much of February, and you know about the power outages in Texas and other parts of the country.

Amazingly, though, our water bill was 30% lower this February than last February!

Pipewrap4
A finished wrap job.

I will admit our gas bill (which covers our household heating) was higher this February than last, but the weather was a real anomaly, so that's not surprising. Our gas bill for March was 20% lower than March of last year, and I think that's more representative of what we will see outside of rare weather events.

One thing we discovered is that you can't get cocky about your utilities, though. We saw that February water bill, got too excited, and turned our hot water heater thermostat really low. Unfortunately that encouraged us (mostly me) to run the water too long, waiting for hot water. So our March water bill was only 5% lower than last year's. Lesson learned; it's a balance.

Also want to compare this return-on-investment to the quote we recently received for solar panels. Those would cost us $8,000 (!), and it would take 20 years to pay off our investment, and that assumes the solar panels never need to be replaced or repaired. (Right.)

Even if you're not ready to jump up and throw a pipe-wrapping party just yet, I encourage you to have a look at your water pipes. It's instructive to see where the water comes into your residence from the outside main and where it goes once it's here.

Also want to credit John Michael Greer's outstanding book Green Wizardry for planting the energy-efficiency seed; in other words, reminding me of what I should have already known, having grown up in a time when energy efficiency was on everyone's mind, as it should be.

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3 Great Gifts for Gardeners from Small, Indie Shops

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By Lisa Brunette

Springtime is a great point in the year to remember the gardener in your life - yes, even if the only gardener in your life is you! As the soil warms up enough for seeds, and bare bark begins to leaf out, we gardeners get ridiculously busy and might not have time for self care as we're busting sod and ripping open seed packets. Even if there's no gift-excuse day coming up, like a birthday or anniversary, a sweet little basket of gardening gifts is just the thing.

With that in mind, I've put together a trio of my favorite things - gardening items I've personally, thoroughly tested and love. I recommend these without reservation, and in fact all the below links are both 1) stuff I am currently using, or exactly like it and 2) items available right now in Etsy shops. I'm including affiliate links, by the way, so if you do purchase them using the links, Cat in the Flock might earn a commission, at no extra cost to you. So you can support this blog, show small, indie shops some love, and get a great garden gift, too!

Gift Idea No. 1: Name That Plant

Copper Label
As a way to train myself to learn them, I like to write the Latin names for native plants in permanent marker on these elegant copper labels.

Last week, I gave a tour of our garden to a local journalist interviewing me about the Shutterbee project, and it was really handy to have so many of our plants labeled for quick reference. I use these copper labels only to identify native perennials, which warrant the permanent treatment. They're real copper and weather well to a lovely patina as the seasons change.

You can order the same through the Etsy shop TheCelticFarm - they come in a pack of 30. Just remember to pick up a permanent marker somewhere, too.

Copperlabeletsy
Photo courtesy TheCelticFarm.

I don't bother to label annuals, as it's just not cost-effective since they're short-lived and change location each year with our rotation gardening. For those I find it's better to keep a planting chart (digital spreadsheet) and gardening diary (spiral where I paste seed packets with notes).

Gift Idea No. 2: Quick, to the Bat House!

Bat House
Our bat house.

It sucks (and I don't mean 'suck' as in vampire!) that bats got a bad rap just because of our overactive imaginations and superstitions. Bats are safe and worthy pollinators to encourage in your garden. Here's the official word from the Missouri Department of Conservation:

Bats are an important part of the natural world. Bats that feed on fruit are the primary means of seed dispersal for some species, and nectar-feeding bats are responsible for the pollination of many species of plants. In fact, more than 400 products used by humans come from bat-pollinated plants. These products include bananas, avocados, cashews, balsa wood and tequila.

Missouri bats help control nocturnal insects, some of which are agricultural pests or, in the case of mosquitoes, annoying to people. Many forms of cave life depend on the nutrients brought in by bats and contained in their guano.

In our yard, bats pollinate and eat our native passionflower vines. (We have two.) One of my favorite things to do at dusk in summer is to sit in the garden and watch as the bats come out, flittering overhead.

You can get your own bat house from JoesWoodWorksITC - this one is made out of cedar and features a double chamber.

Bathouseetsy
Image courtesy JoesWoodWorksITC.

Once you get the bat house home, here are some handy tips for how to hang it properly.

Gift Idea No. 3: Face Plant!

Face_plant

You might remember our face plant pot from "After a Lifetime of Frequent Moves, The Importance of Staying Put." Besides the awesome visual pun in 'face plant,' these just look really cool because whatever you plant in the pot becomes the hair atop the face. Think ChiaPet, only a lot less kitschy.

Unfortunately, mine was a recent casualty when I accidentally kicked it while trying to perform what my physical therapist calls "that kicky thing you do with your leg." Yeah, it's something I do to manually adjust my right hip (scoliosis issues). Too bad the plant pot bit it in the process.

Luckily, Etsy has a few replacement options, most notably these rather more whimsical versions from vintagebohemianstyle.

Vintagebohemianstyle
Image courtesy vintagebohemianstyle.

You can find more recommendations on my Etsy 'favorites' page, most notably some wonderful wearable wool in the form of a 'coatigan' and some merino wool long underwear. I like to buy a lot of things out of season when it's cheaper, and wool's a good one for that tactic. 

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What Is Permaculture Gardening? And Why Does It Matter?

Passionflower Vine

By Lisa Brunette

I've been tossing around the word 'permaculture' to describe some of the activities Anthony and I are engaged in here on the suburban farmstead. As it's not a mainstream way of gardening (or way of life) yet, I thought it might be helpful to define it.

Permaculture is a portmanteau for the words "permanent" and "agriculture." The idea begins with the conviction that modern humans are not growing things on this planet in a permanently sustainable manner. Especially since the advent of fossil fuel technology and its resultant slew of fertilizers, soil amendments, and chemicals meant to kill off insect pests, we've been poisoning the environment, depleting the soil, and destroying our water supplies. The problems continue with practices like monocropping, or growing large tracts of nothing but one plant, aggressive tilling of the soil, and letting farmland lie fallow and sterile, without putting anything back in during the seasons it's not in use to grow food.

Turnip

I first heard of permaculture when I lived in the Pacific Northwest, where it's a bit of a buzzword. Somewhat ironically, however, it wasn't until I moved back to the Midwest that I began to practice it in earnest. 

I say 'somewhat' because it's not as if people in the Midwest aren't doing permaculture. There's Midwest Permaculture Center in my neighboring state of Illinois, and some folks here have been effectively practicing permaculture all their lives and just haven't ever labeled it as such. One of the best permaculture solutions I've ever encountered - a super-smart, inexpensive, completely non-toxic method for combatting cedar rust - came from a fellow Missourian.

Nyssa sylvatica

So, OK, I've outlined the practices that permaculture is calling out as wrongheaded. But what do we do instead?

As it turns out, a whole host of things, and most of these things are very ecosystem-specific. What I've learned in my four years' deep dive into all things permaculture is that you have to adapt and tailor it to your situation, your home, your region, your weather systems, soil type, etc., etc. But that said, there are some universal takeaways. I'll touch on them here, with some book recommendations embedded for your further exploration.

Soil

We seem to be coming to a consensus that the earth beneath our feet is the key to everything. I've talked about the soil before when I gave some tips on sheet-mulching. But I'm learning new, exciting facts about dirt all the time! Just last week, it was that the fungus-to-bacteria ratio in your soil could be a much better method for judging soil quality than the mainstream practice of assessing ratios of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium (the ol' NPK metric) and amending the soil accordingly. But don't let that science-y tone put you off, as the F:B ratio thing is really pretty simple: For more fungal activity, you want to use a mulch that promotes mycorrhizal growth, such as wood chips. For more bacteria, you'd use compost. Brassicas and mustard like much more bacterial activity, and most vegetables like a slightly more balanced ratio of 3 fungal to 4 bacterial.

Lisa digging in dirt

I guess the key takeaway is that permaculturists look for ways to improve the soil that mimic natural systems. When I'm hiking through the forest, I see a layer of dead leaves each fall that decompose, feeding the forest trees and plants. No one comes through and tills the soil. The forest is a healthy ecosystem. While we can't grow most food plants in a regular deciduous forest, we can mimic natural systems with thick mulches that replenish the soil, plants that are grown solely for the purpose of feeding the soil and/or chopped to "mulch in place," and layers of plantings that harness the power of a forest but focus on food we humans can eat, hence the term "food forest."

For an excellent introduction to soil, read Toby Hemenway's Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture. While I don't agree with his stance on native plants, the symphonic description of soil bowled me over.

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Native Plants

The best permaculturists use many native plants, as natives have evolved over millennia along with beneficial, native insects to exist in the given environment without a lot of human intervention. Now, there are permaculture practitioners who advocate the use of some exotic invasive plants, but I am not in that camp. To my thinking, the benefits of any particular invasive are far outweighed by the potential damage that invasives can do. Since invasives can easily spread through seed carriage from birds and animals, to me it seems irresponsible to use invasive plants (sort of like second-hand smoke). There's always a native or at least non-invasive introduced plant alternative that will accomplish the same thing anyway.

Echinacea

Of all the plants we've grown, the native trees, shrubs, grasses, and flowers are by far the easiest. You don't need to do anything to amend the soil, nor do you need to till it. Just put in the plant, or sow the seed, and you've got fairly instant success - though patience is key, as natives grow by the rhythm, 'first year sleep, second year creep, third year leap.' Many natives are edible and medicinal, too. We've used that criteria for selecting our natives and have never been at a loss. Our native food/medicinal plants include paw paw and persimmon trees, violets, blueberries, blackberries, plums, cedar berries, hibiscus, passionflower, sunflowers, echinacea, rudbeckia, hyssop, New Jersey tea, chokecherry, serviceberry, and more.

If they aren't edible or medicinal, they're at least host plants for beneficial pollinators and other wildlife, such as our sycamore, tulip, and black gum trees, as well as our native violet ground cover.

Though he doesn't call himself a permaculturist, and he has less of a focus on edible/human use plants than I'd like, Doug Tallamy is a leading advocate for native plant gardening. His book Bringing Nature Home is a must-read.

 

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Canopy Layers and Polyculture Guilds

Speaking in terms of that hike through the forest I mentioned earlier, the other thing we notice is that plants grow in distinct canopy layers. First, there are roots, tubers, bulbs, and rhizomes growing into the dirt, followed by low ground covers colonizing the soil surface. Next are knee-high plants and grasses, followed by shrubs and small trees in the understory. Finally, tall trees make up the canopy overhead. Permaculturists mimic the layering found in nature by designing gardens in the same way.

For example, in our garden, we've planted (or simply encouraged) the aforementioned sycamore, black gum, and tulip trees for the high canopy, and they're joined by a Shumard oak, Eastern red cedars, and several persimmons. Next is the understory, made up of paw paws, serviceberry, an old lilac, a rose bush, and fruit trees. Next are blackberry vines, blueberry and gooseberry shrubs, elderberries, chokecherry and serviceberry trees, hazelnuts, witch hazel, and others. Then down to the perennial vegetables asparagus, rhubarb, and horseradish, as well as annual vegetables. Finally, we have a ground cover of violets and geraniums, as well as plants with edible roots.

Evening primrose

Polyculture guilds are more complex, but the one everyone references first is the three sisters: squash, corn, and beans. The point is that the three plants are interdependent. Corn provides a trellis for beans, beans provide nitrogen to the corn, and squash shades the soil over their roots. In our garden, we've created fruit tree guilds with, for example, alliums, witch hazel, evening primrose, borage, and other plants interplanted in the orchard. You might also think of simple companion planting, such as peas, lettuce, carrots, and beets planted in proximity to support each other. We planted an oak where its leaves will fall on a bed of blueberry bushes, the acidic oak leaves providing a natural mulch for acid-loving blueberries, and we won't even have to rake them into place!

Sepp Holzer's Permaculture: A Practical Guide to Small-Scale, Integrative Farming and Gardening is kind of the bible of permaculture, or one of them, anyway, and it's a great read. I highly recommend it. 

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Permaculture encompasses more than gardening as well - it's a whole way of life. I'll tackle other permaculture aspects in a future post, but I hope for now you're excited to dive in, checking out some of the books above. Also want to shout out to my online permaculture community, Permies.com, where you can discuss these topics with likeminded folk. It's been a great resource for me. And if you're in the St. Louis area, I recommend checking out the tremendous offerings from Gateway Greening - from low-cost seeds to a handy planting calendar to helpful how-to videos. Welcome to permaculture!

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More DIY (Recycling and Repurposing) Bird Bath Fun!

Twig bird bath
Photo courtesy Austin Durant.

By Lisa Brunette

You might remember that super-popular post from last year on taking found items you might have lying around your basement or garage and repurposing them as bird baths. It was the No. 1 article from 2020 and the fifth most popular read of all time here at Cat in the Flock. Well, when I shared it with my online permaculture community, aka, the 'permies,' I was thrilled to see it inspire a couple of pretty cool extensions on the theme.

First up is the rustic twig bird bath above, made from a terra cotta pot water dish and found branches. This one's from Austin Durant, of San Diego, Calif. He must be great at Jenga to get that dish to balance so well on the twigs. Here's another look.

Twig bird bath 2
These photos also by Austin Durant.

You can tell Austin did a good job because the birds found the bath and began using it.

Sunday-birdbatch

In fact, they started to queue up for the whole bird bath experience!

Thumb-birdbath-queue

By the way, Austin is not just a bird lover; he's also the founder and chief fermentation officer at the Fermenter's Club. Their mission:

To improve people’s lives by teaching them why and how to make and enjoy fermented foods; and to create communities that are connected through their guts.

Fermentation is one of those skills Anthony and I are currently developing toward our overall goal of becoming more self-sufficient, as it gives us another method for preserving the food we're growing ourselves. The Fermenter's Club offers online classes in everything from how to make fish sauce to kombucha and sourdough bread. We haven't tried any of the Club offerings yet, but now that we know about it...

So the other bird gift to come out of my DIY post is this nifty feeder created by Stef Watkins of northern New Mexico. She made it out of the following:

  • a plastic tennis ball tube
  • a lunch takeout dish
  • a small branch (for inside the tube)
  • one screw
  • string
  • birdseed
Reclaimed plastic bird feeder
Photo courtesy Stef Watkins.

What's brilliant about this feeder is that Stef's not just repurposing but reclaiming two plastic items that would otherwise have gone into the waste stream. She gets major points for this one!

Now that you've seen where this whole thing with recycling for the birds can go, what do you have to show? Post your examples in the comments below!

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