Backyard Homesteading All-in-One For Dummies book cover

Backyard Homesteading All-in-One For Dummies

By: Todd Brock Published: 04-30-2019

Live a more sustainable lifestyle 

Historically referred to as a government program for revitalizing undesirable living areas, "homesteading" today has come to mean the pursuit of a self-sufficient lifestyle. Homesteading can include everything from keeping bees, growing vegetables, and composting to installing solar panels, creating a rain barrel, and canning your own food,—plus much more.

Backyard Homesteading All-in-One For Dummies has a little bit of everything for the homesteader in all of us. It walks you through the basics of creating your own sustainable homestead and offers expert tips and tricks for making it as easy and successful as possible. 

  • Raise chickens
  • Keep bees
  • Compost
  • Can and preserve

This book gives you everything you need to embark on your own homesteading adventure.

Articles From Backyard Homesteading All-in-One For Dummies

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Homesteading: How to Make Soap

Article / Updated 12-13-2021

For many homesteaders, the drive to become increasingly more self-sufficient is strong. Learning how to make soap often becomes a natural "next step" (after gardening, harvesting, and animal husbandry) in homesteading. The technique you use to make your own soaps determines the amount of time you invest in your hobby (or product). This article covers two basic soapmaking techniques: hand milling and melting and pouring. (You can also make soap from scratch by using lye, but the process is more complex and requires care in handling sodium hydroxide, which is a caustic substance.) How to make hand-milled soap If you don’t like the idea of working with chemicals, you may want to try making hand-milled soap. All you do is take an existing bar of commercial soap, grate it, and then remelt it with water. You can then color, scent, and mold it as you please. Many diehard soapmakers scoff at this technique. They say that you’re technically not making the soap because you’re using commercial soap, which may be soap but more than likely is a synthetic detergent bar. (If you have a preference for “real” soap, be sure to read the label and buy soap that has ingredients such as sodium cocoate, sodium palmate, sodium olivate, and so on.) But if you want to exercise a little creativity, you can still do so when you hand-mill soap. You can craft soap that looks and smells the way you want it and is something you can’t always find at the store. If you plan to scent your soap, make sure that you start with an unscented bar of commercial soap. If you think you want to make soap, why not try hand-milling soap that you already have? The only special tool that you really need is a hand grater. Here are the basic steps. Grate your soap, as shown in the figure below. The smaller you grate your pieces, the quicker the melting time. Melt your pieces in water in the top pot of a double boiler or in a microwave. Use approximately 1 cup of water for every 2 cups of soap gratings. If using the microwave, heat the shavings and water in short bursts and check often, stirring as needed. Some people set their microwaves at 50 percent power when melting clear glycerin soap base or shavings. Experiment with what works best for you and your microwave. Stir your soap as it melts. After the soap has melted, stir in your color. Continue stirring until the soap is thick and creamy and then remove it from the heat. Add any other additives, such as essential oils. Pour your soap into the mold. Let the soap cool overnight before removing it from the mold. Your soap isn’t finished just because it’s out of the mold. Allow it to solidify for three to seven days. How to make melt-and-pour soap If making hand-milled soap sounds like cheating to you, then making melt-and-pour soap may be right up your alley. Instead of using commercial soap, you use a melt-and-pour soap base that you purchase in a craft store. The base comes in blocks, chunks, or nuggets, and you simply melt the amount you need and then mold it. Probably more than any other soapmaking technique, melt-and-pour soapmaking resembles the steps involved in making candles. Like candlemaking, you use premade material, melt it, and mold it. If you love to make candles, chances are you’ll enjoy making melt-and-pour soaps. Here’s how melt-and-pour soapmaking works: Melt your soap chunks in a double boiler over medium heat or melt them in a heat-resistant bowl in the microwave (see the following figure). You can also cut 1- or 2-inch chunks off a large 1-pound or 5-pound block of soap if you’re not using precut chunks. If you’re melting your soap in the microwave, melt your soap at 50 percent heat for approximately 1 minute. Stir your soap. Continue melting it at 20-second intervals until the soap is completely melted. Remove your melted soap from the heat and stir in any additives, such as color. Pour your melted soap into the mold. Most melt-and-pour soaps shrink as they set, so you probably don’t need to spray your mold with a releasing agent. Allow your soap to cool for approximately 1 hour. Although melt-and-pour soap is immediately safe for the skin, let it dry out and harden for a few days before use, so that it will last longer. Enhance your soap with additives Additives are generally anything you add to your soap base to enhance its color, scent, texture, skin-care benefits, or overall aesthetic value. You stir in the additives as the last step before pouring your soap into the mold and after the soap has been melted. If you’re adding a solid additive to melt-and-pour soap, be aware that it may separate, or sink to the bottom of your mold. To avoid this problem, let your soap cool more than you usually would, stirring the additive into the soap the entire time. You want the soap mixture to thicken in your bowl before you pour it into the mold, much like thickening gelatin. Waiting longer than usual can help the solid additive stay suspended in the soap. The table describes popular additives. Common Soapmaking Additives Additive Description Almond oil Soothes irritated, itchy skin. Also used as base. Has slight odor. Aloe vera Relieves dry and burned skin. Can use in plant or gel form. Apricot Softens skin. A popular bath additive. To use, place dried apricots in water for several hours and then liquefy. Apricot kernel oil Softens skin. Especially good for sensitive skin. Beeswax Hardens soap and contributes scent. Need to melt before adding to soap. Don’t use more than 1 ounce per pound of soap. Clay Helps dry out oily skin. Choose finely powdered French clay. Cocoa butter Hardens soap and moisturizes. Looks and smells like white chocolate but can be purchased in a deodorized form if you want its qualities without the chocolate smell. Cucumber Acts as astringent. Use grated skin or liquefied. Glycerin Moisturizes skin. Herbs Contribute texture and color. Honey Moisturizes skin and makes soap softer. Lanolin Hardens soap. Moisturizes and softens skin. Can cloud soap. Don’t use if allergic to wool. Lemon Adds texture and speckling, as well as antibacterial qualities. Use grated peel. Oatmeal Softens and exfoliates skin. Adds texture. Use ground rolled oats. Limit to a maximum of 1/2 cup rolled or 1/4 cup ground or pulverized oats per pound of soap. A blender works well for making oat flour. Pumice Removes tough dirt, but can be harsh. Adds texture. Vitamin E oil Use as a preservative when you add fresh fruit or other additive at risk of spoiling. Wheat germ Exfoliates skin, as well as adding bulk and texture. Shows up in soap as light speckling. Use no more than 3 tablespoons per pound of soap. You can add color to your soap by using a melt-and-pour soap base or soap dyes. To add a scent, use your favorite essential oils, manufactured fragrance oils, or even spices and extracts from the kitchen or herbs straight from the garden!

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Homesteading: Pickling and Brining

Article / Updated 09-02-2019

Pickling is used for a wide range of foods, including fruits and vegetables. Although pickling isn’t practiced much today, don’t overlook this rewarding process for your backyard homestead. Pickling is a great way to preserve some of your garden's harvest. This article gives you an overview of pickling, describing the ingredients, the utensils, and the methods used. In no time, you’ll be making easy-to- prepare pickled food and condiments that will wow your taste buds and let you enjoy that bumper crop of cukes (and other veggies) all year long. Perusing pickling ingredients Pickling preserves food in a brine solution, a strong mixture of water, salt, vinegar, and sometimes sugar or another sweetener, such as corn syrup. Brining is what gives the vegetables the pickled texture and flavor you’re going for. Some recipes (usually older ones) include a brining step before the actual canning. Other pickling recipes add the brine solution to the raw vegetable and the brining happens in the sterile canning jar as it sits on your shelf. These recipes generally have a recommendation for how many weeks to wait for best flavor. The four basic ingredients for pickling are salt, vinegar, water, and herbs and spices. Use high-quality ingredients for the best results. The perfect balance of salt, vinegar, water, and herbs and spices safely preserves your pickled food. You can achieve this balance by precisely measuring your ingredients and following each step in your recipe. Salt Salt is used as a preservative. It adds flavor and crispness to your food, especially pickles. Use a pure, additive-free, granulated salt. Acceptable salts are pickling and canning salt (a fine-grained salt containing no additives), most kosher salt, and sea salt, salt produced from evaporated seawater. Not all kosher salts are the same. The two most popular brands, Diamond and Morton, are quite different in many respects, including (believe it or not) their saltiness! Add the same measurement of each brand to two recipes that are otherwise identical; the difference will not only astound you, it can even ruin some pickling recipes. Without getting into the technical nuts and bolts of how each company makes their salt (which accounts for the disparity), the part you need to know is this: Morton’s kosher salt tastes almost twice as salty as Diamond’s product. When using Morton kosher salt in recipes, it is suggested that you use the prescribed amount, knowing you may need to add a pinch more than the table or pickling salt measurement. If you have Diamond kosher salt on hand, double the prescribed amount to keep the finished flavor in check. Additives in salt cause cloudy liquid. Always read the ingredient label on your salt container to ensure it’s additive-free. Salts not suitable for brining and pickling solutions are Table salt and iodized salt: These contain anti-caking agents, additives that keep the salt from sticking together. These cloud your liquid. Iodine darkens food. Rock salt: Rock salt keeps roads free of ice and isn’t made for use with food. It’s okay in an ice-cream freezer because it never touches the food. Salt substitutes: These products contain little or no sodium. Vinegar Vinegar is a tart liquid that prevents the growth of bacteria. For pickling, you must use a vinegar with an acidity level of 5 percent. If the level of acidity isn’t on the label, don’t use the vinegar — the strength of the acid may not be adequate for safe food preservation. The preferred vinegar for pickling is distilled white vinegar, which has a sharp, tart flavor, maintains the color of your food, and is relatively inexpensive. For a milder flavor, you can substitute apple cider vinegar. Keep in mind, though, that using cider vinegar will change the overall color of your finished foods, not always for the better. You may get unappetizing gray or brown results from using the wrong type of vinegar. To avoid cloudy pickles, use a vinegar that’s clear from sediment. Cider and wine vinegars often have sediment, and you may even be able to see things floating around. What causes the sediment? Vinegars that still contain the mother, a harmless bacterium that creates the vinegar but also causes sediment to form on the bottom of the bottle. Never dilute or reduce the amount of vinegar in a recipe. To ensure a safe product, the brine must have the right acidity level. Never use a vinegar with less than 5 percent acidity. If the flavor’s too tart, add 1/4 cup granulated sugar for every 4 cups of vinegar. Treating flavors in this manner won’t upset the balance of your vinegar. If you don’t like the flavor when you make the recipe, try another recipe. Don’t forget to jot down your changes on your recipe card! Water Soft water is the best water for your brine solution. Too much iron in your water can cause discoloration of the finished product. Distilled water, water with all minerals and other impurities removed, is also a good choice. If you use tap water, make sure it’s of drinking quality; if it doesn’t taste good to you, it won’t taste better in your food. Also, avoid using sparkling water. Herbs and spices Use the exact amount of herbs or spices called for in your recipe. If your recipe calls for a fresh herb, use the fresh herb. If your recipe calls for a dried spice, use one with a strong aroma. Pickling spices are blends of many spices including allspice, bay leaves, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, ginger, mustard seed, and peppercorns. They’re mixed by the manufacturer and vary in flavor. Although these spices are generally whole and therefore good keepers, it is best to buy fresh, new spices each year, before you start canning. Brining Education The brining process is a key part of the pickling process because it does these important things: Chemically, it draws out the natural juices and replaces them with salty/vinegar solution, giving your veggies that familiar pickled flavor and texture. It extracts juice and sugar from your food, forming lactic acid, a bitter-tasting tart acid. This lactic acid serves as the preservative in your pickled food. Because the brining solution typically includes vinegar (an acid), it safely converts your low-acid foods (those with a pH level over 4.6) to high-acid foods (with a pH level of 4.6 or less), making it safe for water-bath canning. (This is why you must prepare your recipe as it’s written and not modify the amounts.) As mentioned previously, sometimes you brine your vegetables before canning; other times, you add the brine solution to the raw vegetables and let the brining occur in the canning jar. The following sections explain how to prepare your veggies for each. Fresh (or raw) packing: Adding brine to the raw veggies In this method, you place fresh raw vegetables in prepared jars and then cover them with hot flavored liquid, usually a spicy vinegar, and process the filled jars in your water-bath canner. To ensure the pickling process can occur uniformly, make sure your vegetables are completely submerged in the brining solution. Most of the recipes in this chapter require raw packing. Complete precooking In this method, you cook your food completely before filling your jars. The following relish recipe is precooked before canning. The taste of the relish is present before you add it to the jars, and it’s ready to eat once it is cooked. Brining before canning When brining your vegetables beforehand, how long you let your vegetables soak can vary anywhere from a few hours to several weeks. Your recipe provides the details. Here’s what you need to know about these long or short brines: Long brine: This process is primarily used for making pickles from cucumbers. The veggies stay in the brine anywhere from five days to six weeks. The brine solution is quite heavy with salt and may contain some vinegar and spices. None of the recipes in this chapter require a long brine. Short brine: The soaking period for this method is 24 hours or less. Follow your recipe for the correct proportions in your brine solution. You use a short brine for the Sweet Pickle Relish and Zucchini Bread and Butter Pickles. In both cases, you submerge the food in the brine solution, where it ferments (stays in the solution) for the recommended period of time. (Your recipe gives you the details.) After fermenting, follow your recipe and make a fresh brine solution for filling your jars. Be sure to keep your food completely submerged in the brine solution, whether it’s for a few hours or longer. To do this, place a sealed, water-filled glass jar on top of your food. The jar applies pressure to keep the foods submerged when you cover your brining container. Stoneware crocks are excellent choices for brining food. You can find them at specialty cookware stores or where canning supplies are sold. But there’s an important caveat: Don’t use a crock that you’ve gotten from a thrift store or other secondhand store. Without the original packaging, you have no way of knowing whether it’s lead-free and suitable for brining. Old-time canning recipes may instruct you to “soak your pickles in salt brine strong enough to float an egg.” This equates to a 10-percent brine mixture of 1 pound (about 1-1/2 cups) of salt dissolved in 1 gallon of water.

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Homesteading: Bottling Your Homebrewed Beer

Article / Updated 09-02-2019

Bottling homebrew isn’t a difficult procedure, but many brewers often deride it as one that’s tedious at worst and boring at best. But for millions of people who brew their beer at home, bottling represents the only option for packaging their finished brew, making it a mandatory step in the homebrewing process. The American brewing industry continues to package beer — albeit in limited markets — in a variety of 7-, 12-, 16-, and 22-ounce and quart-size returnable bottles; check with your local beer retailer. You can easily purchase brand-new 12- and 22-ounce bottles through homebrew supply shops, but the cost is sometimes prohibitive, mostly due to the cost of shipping. Using larger bottles is a way to expedite the bottling process as well as free you from its drudgery. The more beer the bottles can hold, the fewer bottles you need. For instance, to bottle an entire 5-gallon batch of beer in 7-ounce nip bottles, you need to clean, fill, and cap more than 90 of them. If you use 22-ounce bottles, on the other hand, you need only 30 of them. Now, here are the steps for the bottling brigade: 1. Fill your utility tub or other designated sanitizing basin with enough cold water to cover your submerged bottles, adding bleach or another sanitizing agent according to the manufacturer's directions. 2. Submerge as many bottles as you need to contain your full batch of 5 gallons of beer. Make sure your bottles are scum-free before dunking them in the sanitizing solution. Any bottle with dried or living crud in the bottom needs to be scrubbed separately with a cleanser such as trisodium phosphate (TSP) before you sanitize it. You can fill and submerge the bottles in less than half the time if you place a drinking straw in the bottles; the straw enables the air in the bottle to escape through the straw instead of slowly bubbling through the opening (your bottling tube with the valve detached suffices here). 3. Allow your bottles to soak for at least half an hour (or the time necessary according to the package's directions). 4. While the bottles soak, dissolve 3/4 cup of dextrose in a pint or so of water in one of the saucepans, cover the solution, and place it on a burner over low heat. 5. Put your bottle caps into your other saucepan, fill the pan with enough water to cover all the caps, and place the pan on another burner over low heat. Put enough bottle caps for as many bottles as you have soaking plus a few extra; having too many sterilized caps ready for bottling is better than not having enough. 6. Allow both pans to come to a boil, remove them from the heat, and allow them to cool. 7. After the bottles soak for half an hour, connect the bottle rinser to the faucet over the sanitizing tub. 8. With one hand over the opening (so that you don’t get squirted), turn on the hot water. After the initial spray, the bottle washer holds back the water pressure until a bottle is lowered over the stem and pushed down. 9. Start cleaning the bottles one-by-one with the bottle brush, and then drain the sanitizer, rinse your bottles with the bottle rinser, and allow them to air dry. Continue this step until all bottles are clean. Visually check each bottle for cleanliness rather than just assume that they’re all clean. Four dozen free-standing bottles make one heck of a breakable domino effect. Always put your cleaned bottles back into six-pack holders or cardboard cases to avoid an aggravating and easily avoidable accident. 10. Drain the utility tub of the bottle-cleaning water. 11. Place the bottling bucket in the tub and fill it with water and the sanitizing agent of your choice. 12. Place the bottling hose, bottling tube, and hydrometer cylinder into the bottling bucket and allow them to soak for half an hour (or according to sanitizing agent directions). 13. While the bottling equipment soaks, retrieve the still-covered fermenter from its resting place and place it on a sturdy table, counter, or work surface about 3 or 4 feet off the ground. At this point, you need to set up your bottling station, making sure that you have the priming sugar mixture (still in the saucepan), bottle caps, bottle capper, bottles, and hydrometer with cylinder on hand. If you’re bottling your brew directly from the primary fermenter, you want to have already taken a hydrometer reading to confirm completion of fermentation. If you’re bottling from your secondary fermenter (glass carboy), incomplete fermentation isn’t a concern, and you can take a hydrometer reading (to determine final gravity and alcohol content) as the beer drains into the bottling bucket. 14. After half an hour, drain the sanitizing solution from the bottling bucket through the spigot on the bottom. After the bucket is empty, thoroughly rinse the remaining pieces of equipment (hose, bottling tube), along with the bottles and caps, and bring them to your bottling station. 15. Place the bottling bucket on the floor directly below the fermenter and connect the plastic hosing to the spigot on the fermenter, allowing the other end of the hosing to hang inside the bottling bucket. If you’re initiating the bottling procedures from your glass carboy, you can’t rely on the convenience of a spigot to drain out the beer. You need to use your racking cane and siphon the brew. 16. Pour the dextrose and water mixture into the bottling bucket. The dissolved corn sugar mixes with the beer as the beer drains from the fermenter into the bottling bucket. After you’ve bottled the beer, this sugar becomes another source of food for the few yeast cells still remaining in the liquid. As the yeast consumes the sugar, it produces the beer’s carbonation within the bottle. Eventually, the yeast again falls dormant and creates a thin layer of sediment on the bottom of each bottle. If, by chance, you bottle a batch of beer that isn’t fully fermented or you somehow add too much dextrose at bottling time, you may find out first-hand what a mess exploding bottles can make. Excess sugar (whether added corn sugar or leftover maltose from an unfinished fermentation) overfeeds the yeast in an enclosed bottle. With nowhere for the pressure to go, the glass gives before the bottle cap. Kaboom! Mess! Do not over-prime. (Use no more than 3/4 cup of dextrose in 5 gallons of beer.) 17. Open the spigot on the fermenter and allow all the beer to run into the bottling bucket. Don’t try to salvage every last drop from the fermenter by tilting it as the beer drains down the spigot. The spigot is purposely positioned about an inch above the bottom of the fermenter so that all the spent yeast and miscellaneous fallout remains behind. 18. After the last of the beer drains, close the spigot, remove the hose, and rinse it. Avoid splashing or aerating your beer as you bottle it. Any oxidation that the beer picks up now can be tasted later. Yuck. 19. Carefully place the bottling bucket up where the fermenter was, connect the rinsed hose to the spigot on the bottling bucket, and attach the bottling tube to the other end of the hose. 20. Arrange all your bottles on the floor directly below the bottling bucket (keeping them all in cardboard carriers or cases to avoid breakage and spillage). 21. Open the spigot on the bottling bucket and begin to fill all the bottles. Gently push the bottling tube down on the bottom of each bottle to start the flow of beer. The bottle may take a short while to fill, but the process always seems to accelerate as the beer nears the top. Usually, a bit of foam rushes to the top of the bottle; don’t worry! As soon as you withdraw the bottling tube, the liquid level in the bottle falls. 22. Remove the tube from each bottle after foam or liquid reaches the top of the bottle. This figure shows you how full you want your bottles to be. After you remove the bottling tube from the bottle, the level of the beer falls to about an inch or so below the opening. Homebrewers have differing opinions as to how much airspace (or ullage) is necessary. Some say the smaller the airspace, the less oxidation that can occur. Others claim that if you don’t have correct ullage, the beer can’t carbonate properly. Basically, if it looks like the space in bottles of beer from commercial breweries, go with it! 23. After you completely drain the bottling bucket, close the spigot, remove the hose, toss it inside the bottling bucket, and set everything aside to be cleaned after all the bottling procedures are complete. 24. Place all the bottles on your tabletop or work surface. Place a cap on each bottle, position your bottles in the capper (one at a time), and pull down on the capper handle or levers slowly and evenly. You may want to do this task as soon as each bottle is full as insurance against everything that can go wrong when full bottles of your precious brew are sitting around open. A bench capper, as seen in this figure, is free-standing and can be attached to a work surface (permanently, if you like), which leaves one hand free to hold the bottle steady. Both bench- or two-handle-style cappers come with small magnets in the capper head designed to hold and align the cap as you start crimping. Many homebrewers don’t trust the magnet to hold the caps in alignment and prefer to seat them on the bottles by hand. Occasionally, a cap may crimp incorrectly. If you suspect that a cap didn’t seal right, tilt the bottle sideways and check for leakage. If you find you have a leaker, yank the cap and replace it. (You boiled extras — right?) 25. Your homebrew needs to undergo a two-week conditioning phase, so store your liquid lucre in a cool, dark location (such as the same place that you kept the fermenter). This phase is where the remaining yeast cells chow down on the dextrose and carbonate your beer. Putting your brew in the fridge isn’t a good idea — at least for the first two weeks — because the cold temperatures stunt the yeast’s carbonating activity. Aim for fifty degrees Fahrenheit. 26. Thoroughly rinse your brewing equipment in hot water and store it in a place that’s relatively dust- and mildew-free. You may even want to go that extra step and seal all your equipment inside a large-capacity garbage bag. After two weeks pass, check to see whether the bottles have clarified (the yeasty cloudiness has settled out). Chill a bottle or two for taste-testing. Like any commercial beer, you need to decant homebrew before drinking, not only to release the carbonation and the beer’s aromatics but also to pour a clear beer. Drinking homebrew out of the bottle stirs up the sediment, creating a hazy beer.

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Homesteading: How to Make Candles

Article / Updated 09-02-2019

Making candles can be a relaxing and rewarding hobby, but for backyard homesteaders, it's also a natural extension of their desire for increased self-sufficiency. Nothing quite compares to the feelings of pride and pleasure that come from looking at a beautiful, burning candle and knowing that you created it with your own two hands. And because candle making isn’t an expensive hobby, you can decorate your home with candles, as well as give them as gifts. Waxing about the types of candle waxes Without wax, your candle won’t burn. But certain waxes are more appropriate for certain types of candles. Paraffin wax: The winner and still champion Paraffin wax is a petroleum-based wax and the most popular wax for making candles. If you’re new to candle making, paraffin wax makes a great starting point. Paraffin wax is inexpensive, easy to color, and available practically anywhere. It has a colorless and odorless nature that enables you to easily add and reliably predict your end colors and aromas. Paraffin wax is commonly available in chunks and large slabs. Don’t be tempted to do one-stop shopping and buy your paraffin wax at the grocery store. This wax isn’t the type you use in candle making; instead, it’s used for sealing food that you’ve jarred. Beeswax: No stings attached A popular choice, beeswax is an all-natural product that has a pleasant honey aroma when burned. In addition to its natural golden shade, beeswax is available in white and other colors. You can buy beeswax in honeycomb sheets, blocks, or beads. If you have your own backyard colony of bees, you can harvest the honeycombs right out of your hive. Beeswax’s low melting point (approximately 140°F) and strength (if you drop it, it dents but doesn’t shatter) makes beeswax a great wax to use when you’re making container candles with children. Gel wax: Feels like jelly A newer product on the market, gel wax is basically mineral oil combined with resin to create a mixture that’s the consistency of jelly. Gel wax is also called (surprise!) jelly wax and looks like a clear gel. You can find gel wax at most craft stores, usually in a round, bucketlike container. If you’ve ever purchased a gel candle, you’re aware that gel wax doesn’t set hard. Because gel wax is clear, it’s popular for embedding nonflammable objects, such as shells or decorative glass objects. Vegetable-based wax: Straight from the earth Believe it or not, waxes made from items such as soybeans, palm wax, and other vegetable bases are available. Fans of these waxes say they burn cleanly and are longer lasting than other chemical-based waxes, such as paraffin. But the main reason to opt for this type of wax is if you’re a vegan. If the package doesn’t specifically say that the wax is all vegetable, it probably isn’t. Find the right wick Any wick you choose should cause your candle to burn. But a well-chosen wick consumes all the melted wax at just the right pace, so that the wax doesn’t drip off the candle and so that there’s enough wax to keep the flame going. This table lists the types of wicks and for which candles they’re most appropriate. Types of Wicks and Their Uses Type of Wick Best Use Flat braided Tapers Square braided Beeswax candles, pillars, and other large candles Metal cored Any type of candle, but especially container candles, gel candles, votives, and tealights Paper cored Votives, tealights, and container candles (but don’t use in gel candles) After you decide on the type of wick, you need to figure out what size of wick you need. That decision depends mainly on your candle’s diameter. If you’re not sure what the diameter is, simply measure the width of your candle at its widest point. The following table gives you a general guide for choosing your wicks. Sizing Your Wick Candle diameter Suggested wick size 0–1 inch Extra small, 20 ply 1–2 inches Small, 24 ply 2–3 inches Medium, 30 ply 3–4 inches Large, 36 ply 4 inches or more Extra-large, 40-plus ply How to roll beeswax candles This may just be the perfect first candle for beginners. You don’t need to melt any wax or use a lot of fancy equipment. You simply roll sheets of beeswax into a round candle. No hot wax, no mess. And if your homesteading efforts include beekeeping, your annual harvest doesn’t have to begin and end with the honey; you can use your colony’s own honeycombs! Beeswax candles are desirable; unlike paraffin, they don’t drip, don’t sputter, and don’t smoke, but they do burn a long time. Buy them in a gift store, and they’re fantastically expensive. But not when you make them yourself! The only downside is that beeswax is sticky at any temperature, and it gets even stickier when it’s warm. But stickiness can work in your favor because the beeswax sheets adhere to each other as you roll them. When you roll your candle, you want your beeswax sheet to be at room temperature. Ideally, it’s been at this temperature for at least a few days. To roll a beeswax candle, you need two sheets of beeswax and a primed wick. Here’s what you want to do: Cut your primed wick so that it’s 3/4 inch longer than the height of your finished candle. If you’re using a normal beeswax sheet, which measures 8 inches x 16 inches, your candle will be about 8 inches tall, so you want your wick to be approximately 8-3/4 inches. If you want to make two 8-inch tapers instead, just cut the sheet in half long ways and roll two candles. Lay your beeswax sheet on a hard surface and place your wick along the edge, as shown in the following figure. Apply pressure, smoothly but firmly rolling the edge of the sheet around the wick and continue rolling the beeswax into a cylinder shape. You want to make sure that you’re rolling straight; otherwise, your edges won’t align. You also want to roll tightly enough so that you don’t trap air between the layers, which can affect how well your candle burns. If you want to make a square candle, just flatten each side with a hard object as you roll. If you want to make a shorter candle, cut the short side of the beeswax sheet in half prior to rolling it. When you reach the end of the first sheet, attach your second sheet of beeswax by firmly pinching the edges of each sheet together and then continue rolling. For a larger candle, you can use as many sheets of beeswax consecutively until you reach your desired diameter. Trim your wick. Wait at least a day, preferably longer, before lighting. homestead-beeswax-candle You want your beeswax to be at least room temperature or warmer, or it will break. If you’re having trouble, try using a hairdryer to heat the sheets. But don’t go too warm, or the wax may begin to melt and become a sticky mess. How to make molded candles The type of candle you’ll probably make the most is a basic molded candle. You can use this one basic technique to make many different types of candles. The type of mold you use doesn’t matter; the steps are pretty much the same. After you choose your mold, you need to figure out how much wax you need to melt. Pour water into your mold and measure the amount you used. For every 3.5 fluid ounces of water, you need 3 ounces of unmelted wax. Melt your wax to the package’s specified temperature. Place the wax in the top part of a double boiler. Bring the water in the bottom section to a rolling boil over medium heat until melted. Use a wax or candy thermometer to monitor the temperature. Don’t use a microwave to melt your wax because the temperature is too hard to control, and you can easily overheat the wax. Unlike food, wax doesn’t look done, and you can’t test it with a fork. You need to constantly check your wax’s temperature. As a rule, if you’re registering temperatures in the 200°F range, you want to be careful. Most waxes combust if they’re 400°F or more, and wax heats up quickly. Each wax’s flashpoint — the temperature at which it combusts — is listed on its packaging. Spray your mold with a mold release, such as silicone or vegetable spray. Using a releasing agent helps you remove the candle from the mold. If you make candles regularly, you may want to use commercial grade release spray instead of vegetable oil because the vegetable oil can leave a film on your mold over time. However, if you make candles only on occasion, the vegetable oil spray works just fine. Cut your wick so that it’s 2 inches longer than your finished candle’s height and then insert it into your mold. When your wax reaches the required temperature, add any additives, color, or scent. Unless you’re using a flexible mold, add stearin in proportion to 10 percent of your wax. Stearin has many benefits, but one in particular that is beneficial here is that it shrinks the wax, which makes your candle easier to remove from the mold. When you add ingredients, your wax’s temperature will probably drop, so continue heating your wax a little longer until it reaches the proper temperature again. Remove your wax from the heat and slowly and smoothly pour it into your mold. Be careful not to get any water into your wax. Remember that the container is hot, so you want to use potholders and get a firm grip on the container’s handle. Pour your wax into the mold until it’s almost full. Stop about 1/2 inch before you reach the top of the mold. Pouring smoothly is key. Don’t constantly change directions; you can wiggle the mold later to get it to set perfectly. Wait a few minutes and then gently tap the side of your mold to remove any air bubbles. As your wax cools, poke holes in the wax around the wick to release tension. If you don’t, the wax pulls the wick off center and may create a concave section on the outside of the candle. After your wax has cooled quite a while, reheat the extra wax you saved and pour it into any holes that have occurred as the wax cools. This step is called a repour. Let your wax cool almost completely and then do a second repour. Don’t rush this step. If you repour the wax while the candle is still hot and liquid, you’re just adding more hot wax that has to shrink. After your candle has completely cooled, you’re ready to remove it from the mold. You simply remove any mold sealer that you used, which should release the candle. When you remove your candle from the mold, remember that the bottom of the mold now becomes the top of the candle. If your candle isn’t coming out of your mold, you may not have let it cool long enough. Wait a few hours and try again later. After some practice, you’ll almost certainly want to add color or scent or both to your candles. You can add solid wax dye disks or liquid dyes to your wax during the melting process. To make a scented candle, use fragrances designed for candles and add it to the wax at the last possible moment before pouring. You can try essential oils, but they rarely work well in candles. Take a dip with tapers Dipping candles is a fairly easy process. You basically melt the wax, dip both ends of a wick in it, let it cool, and repeat 20 to 30 times or more until your candle is the desired width. (Most tapers are usually 1/2 inch in diameter, but don’t feel like you need to follow the crowd. Just remember that if you make the candle too thick, you’re creating a funny-looking pillar instead of a slim taper!) Fortunately, you don’t have to do anything special to create the tapered look; it just naturally happens. Here’s how the process works: Figure out how tall you want each taper, add a couple of extra inches so that your wick protrudes, double that amount, and then add 4 inches for space. When you make tapers, you usually dip in pairs, but you use only one wick. If you want to create a 6-inch taper, for example, then you take 6 inches plus 2 inches to get 8 inches. You multiply that number by 2 to get 16 inches (enough wick for two candles) and then add 4 inches to the total so that you have space in between the candle. (You don’t want the ends of your wick to touch each other when you dip.) So, to make two 6-inch tapers, you need to cut your wick to 20 inches. Tie a weight to each end of the wick so that it stays submerged and straight while you dip. Rocks work just fine as weights. You remove these weights later when the wick is strong enough to stay straight. Melt your wax. When you dip candles, you usually use paraffin wax or a mixture of beeswax and paraffin. Either way, you probably need to add the usual 10 percent stearin. Melt twice the wax you think you need. You need to have plenty left over so that you have enough wax to dip in. Dipping works best when your wax is approximately 160°F to 170°F. Fill your dipping can with wax. You need to make sure that your dipping can is tall enough to accommodate the size of the candle you want to make. Also fill the dipping can fairly full so that you can dip almost all the way up the wick. You have to keep adding wax to the dipping can throughout the process to keep it full. Dip your wick into your melted wax, allow it to cool, and then re-dip your wick repeatedly until you reach your desired diameter, as shown in the following figure. You want to dip your wick deep enough so that you have only a few inches of undipped wick remaining. Don’t linger too long on this dip, though. You want your wick in the wax only for a second. Plunge it in and then remove it smoothly so that the wax doesn’t blob. If your taper looks bumpy, your wax isn’t warm enough. If your wax isn’t building up on your wick, your wax is too hot. If the wax isn’t firming up enough between dips, you need to let it cool longer in between dips. Make sure that the ends of your wick don’t touch each other, or you'll end up with a wax glob. You can use your hands to keep the ends apart, or you may want to use a straw, dowel rod, or piece of cardboard. Place your wicks over a rack or dowel rod until they cool. The cooling process takes approximately 3 minutes. Basically, the wax should feel cool to your touch. Repeat Steps 5 and 6 until your candle is the diameter you want. You may have to dip your candles 20 or 30 times or even more. Every time you dip, more wax builds up on your wick. Eventually, your wick becomes two tapers. If you want your surface to be glossy, then dip it immediately into cool water after your last dip. Let your tapers cool a few hours before handling them and trimming your wick to 1/4 inch. In general, taper candles are 7⁄8 inch in diameter at the bottom so that they can fit into most candleholders. If you’re not using a mold, you probably need to cut the base of the candle down to that size. Of course, if you already know which candle holders you’ll be using, you can cut your candle’s base down to that particular holder’s size. To do so, use a craft knife to score around the base of your cooled candle. Then simply remove the strips of wax until your taper fits perfectly into the holder.

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Beyond Chickens: Livestock for Your Backyard Homestead

Article / Updated 09-02-2019

A backyard homestead opens up opportunities for sharing your farm with other types of animals that you may not have thought to add to your homestead. Besides the flock of chickens you maintain for eggs and maybe meat and the bees you keep on-site for honey and pollination purposes, you may want to have other animals around as residents of your homestead. This article is by no means an exhaustive list of what you can do on your homestead. Want to have horses? Corral cattle? Parent pigs or chaperone sheep or llove your very own llamas? You can if you have the acreage and the inclination, but you’re inching your way toward farming rather than homesteading. Raising rabbits You’ve no doubt heard the phrase tastes like chicken when someone is describing an unusual meat. Well, that description holds true for the meat of the rabbit, which is low in cholesterol. Rabbits, which eat grass and leafy weeds, are more productive and are cheaper to feed than chickens. A rabbit can produce up to 1,000 percent of her body weight in food per year, which brings new meaning to the phrase multiplying like a rabbit! You can skin and butcher about five rabbits in the same amount of time it’d take to do a chicken. Rabbits also produce a fine, soft fiber. Rabbit fur is very soft, and people have used rabbit pelts for years as fur accents on coats or hats, among many other uses. The fiber of the Angora rabbit can also be spun into a super soft yarn known simply as angora. Rabbits such as the Angora shed their coats a few times a year. (Yes, that means you can get the fiber and still keep the critter.) The rabbits should be brushed regularly to keep the coats free of knots, and the stuff you brush off can be added to the pile that you can later spin. For rabbits who don’t shed their coats, you can shear them or you can brush or hand-pull the loose fibers out. (You know it’s time to harvest the rabbit’s fur when you notice clumps of wool sticking to the cage.) Here are a few things to consider: Rabbits don’t need much space to be happy. They should be kept confined to reduce the threat of predators. Take care when building their enclosures to ensure their safety. Hutches should be well above the ground and out of the way of curious dogs and other smaller critters, such as skunks. Because Angora hair is so long and soft, it has a tendency to mat and shed. (Matted fiber is no good.) Shedding not only means the loss of potential spinning fodder but can also make a mess of the cage and cling to your clothes. Regular brushing is crucial. Rabbits, like other animals, need protection from predators, and the very dogs that you use to guard other animals may be the same critters that threaten the rabbits. Outdoor rabbit houses, called hutches, are typically aboveground, secured shelters, so dogs (and skunks, raccoons, and coyotes) can’t even get close to them. The bottoms of the cages are typically a wire mesh-type material so the frequently produced poop can flow freely out of the cage. The hutches my dad used had chicken wire on three sides and on the bottom, and the other side and the roof were wood. Such wire-and-wood hutches can adequately protect the rabbits from the weather (rain, snow, and so on); for warmth, you can put some straw or other bedding materials inside. Keep the hutches inside fences where predators can’t get close. When rabbits get nervous and freak out, they kick. The kicking feet can go down through the wire mesh, damaging the rabbits’ feet and legs. They can wear their hocks down to nothing (a hock is like an elbow on the back of the leg). This can lead to bone infections that are nasty to deal with and are pretty much fatal. Getting your goats Goats are fantastic animals that have been domesticated for more than 10,000 years, and they are a great way for the modern homesteader to become more self-sufficient. Imagine never having to buy milk or cheese again. If you raise dairy goats, you can achieve that goal. Your goats need to have kids to give you milk, and then you can milk them throughout the year for up to three years without re-breeding, if you want. Or you can stagger the kidding each year so that you have a milk supply year-round. Just one standard-size dairy goat can give you an average of 6 to 8 pounds (3 to 4 quarts) of milk each day. And, depending on the butterfat content of the milk, you can get up to a pound of cheese for every gallon of milk. Goat meat has always been popular in the developing world, because goats are much more affordable and use fewer resources than animals such as cows. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the demand for goat meat is expected to continue growing. Goat meat is easily digestible, tasty, and low in fat. If you’re in charge of your own source of meat, you know how it was raised and what feed or medications went into it. If you raise fiber goats, you can spin your own yarn and make hats, blankets, sweaters or other products. You can also sell the fiber to spinners or to companies that make these products, while having the benefit of these friendly creatures. Goats are also well-known for their ability to wipe out weeds. In fact, some people have made businesses out of renting out their goat herds to cities and other municipalities to clean up areas that are overgrown with weeds or blackberry bushes. But be warned: your goats will treat your vegetable garden like a salad buffet if given access, so keeping your goats contained is key. Goats tend to be escape artists, so fences need to be strong and sturdy. Chicken wire and a couple of metal posts aren’t enough — you need something stronger, such as chain link or metal fence panels. Check out ordinances in your area regarding keeping livestock. you may need to buy a license for a goat, just like you do for a dog. In some cities, you can’t keep backyard goats. In an urban area, even if goats are allowed, your neighbors may complain, much like they do with a barking dog. Be aware of what your local noise ordinance covers. Goats need a safe, clean place to hang out, sleep in, or retreat to when the weather is too hot, cold, windy, or rainy. Consider buildings that are already on your property that may be feasible for housing goats. You can remodel a chicken house or other farm building or even use a prefab garden shed for a goat house. Many people house urban goats in a section of garage that opens into the back yard. Finally, run the numbers! In almost all cases, getting only one goat is a recipe for trouble. Goats are not dogs and do not thrive on human companionship alone. Goats are herd animals and need other goats to keep them healthy and happy. A goat without a friend will cry and can even become depressed. Never get just one goat; always buy at least two goats so they can keep each other company. That said, start slow and don’t get the maximum number of goats that your homestead can handle right away. And then think about what you are doing when you start breeding your goats. They grow exponentially, and all the kids are way too cute! Figuring out fowl: ducks, geese, and turkeys Many chicken-keepers add other poultry to their backyard flock. In general, ducks, geese, and turkeys get along well with chickens. However, you may need more room than a small backyard to keep them with chickens. All of these birds need to be kept where they have a lot of space to roam and a place to bathe. Raising domestic ducks and geese Ducks are typically raised for their meat, eggs, and down. Their meat is a more exotic one and is often used in gourmet foods in pricey restaurants (foie gras is one example). Their eggs are larger and richer than that of a chicken and thus are prized among chefs. They’re a popular animal to have on the farm because they’re easy to care for (they’re happy with kitchen scraps), they eat bugs, and they’re just fun to watch. They can also act as alarms and fend off small predators. Geese are hardy birds and aren’t as susceptible to diseases as some of their poultry cousins. They’re easy to care for because they’re foragers — by eating their favorite food, they help control your weeds. They even love grass clippings. Their eggs are a delicacy, and their feathers (particularly their down) make for soft and warm insulation material. Be aware that most ducks and geese can be noisy, and neighbors may not welcome them. You can mix ducklings or goslings (baby geese) with chicks in a brooder without them harming each other. However, you’ll need a plan for meals. We usually recommend that chicks start out with medicated feed, but ducklings and goslings shouldn’t have medicated starter feed because they’re sensitive to the antibiotic used. Since you can’t keep them from eating each other’s feed, all the babies will need unmedicated feed. This compromise may then lead to more disease problems in the chicks. We recommend using a higher-protein feed, such as broiler feed, for ducklings — the chicks will be okay with that choice, too. As adults, ducks, geese, and chickens can eat the same feed, although special feed mixes for ducks are available. Keep in mind that ducks are messy, even when they’re ducklings. They’ll play in the water, and their droppings are more liquid than chicks, so brooders with ducklings need more frequent cleaning to keep them dry. Ducklings don’t need to swim while in the brooder (although they will if they can fit inside the water container), and it’s not recommended to let them bathe if you’re keeping them with chicks. Goslings aren’t quite as messy with water. Geese can be aggressive, and they go after unfamiliar visitors who come into their territory. And because geese are rather big birds, they’re capable of defending themselves and their territory against small to medium predators such as raccoons or weasels. But their biggest guarding benefit is that when they’re upset, they don’t stop squawking until the danger is gone. As long as you’re home, you’ll be notified that something is amiss out in the yard and that you should go check it out. Ducks can be territorial, too, going after and nipping at a critter who doesn’t belong, but they’re not so big and are no match against larger predators. You’ll need to address one other consideration when keeping ducks with chickens. Don’t keep male ducks with chickens without female ducks also being present. Ducks are often aggressive sexually. If they’re deprived of their own females, they may mate with hens. Mother hens and ducks sometimes raise each other’s babies when allowed to mingle freely. They may lay in each other’s nests and sit on each other’s eggs. Chicks don’t usually follow a stepmama duck into water, but it has happened. Baby ducklings can confuse a hen when they pop into water to swim, but it rarely causes a problem. Turkeys Turkeys, of course, are the most popular Thanksgiving meal. Turkeys need to be a bit older than chickens do at slaughter — hens (females) should be 14 to 16 weeks old, and toms (males) should be 19 to 20 weeks. Most commercial turkeys are bred to have a lot of meat on them, and that means they’re unable to fly. That also means you should provide shelter — protection not only from the elements but also from predators, because they can’t fly up to the top of the barn if something gets too close. Turkeys eat grain (with a little higher protein content that what you’d give a chicken) and have a life expectancy of about ten years. Goin’ fishin’: farm raising fish Farm raising fish can be fun because they’re rather easy to care for, but what types and even whether or not you can do this depends on your state’s laws. The most common types of farm-raised fish are catfish and trout. If the fish are for your own enjoyment, you have little to do in the way of caring for them. For instance, if you have a natural pond on your property, you don’t have to do much besides catch them. With human-made ponds or repurposed pools, you need to take care of feeding them and keeping their homes pest-free. If you’re raising fish (such as tilapia, perch, catfish, or trout) for food, you have more health-related issues to consider, such as being careful about the herbicides you use for controlling aquatic plants and keeping the fish disease free. Fish raised in captivity have some problems their wild counterparts do not. Their diet is different, so they can have a different taste or color. They also have less room to swim and can be prone to diseases, so you have to consider using antibiotics.

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Chickens for the Backyard Homestead

Article / Updated 09-02-2019

For many, adding a flock of chickens is what truly turns a gardener into a homesteader. You’re suddenly caring for a group of animals on your property and, in turn, feeding your family with what they produce. You’re practically a farmer! While raising a flock of backyard chickens is one of the most enjoyable parts of homesteading for many, it’s not a commitment to be taken lightly. There’s plenty for you to consider beforehand to make sure that chicken-keeping is a fit for your family homestead. Before you become a chicken owner, you need to make some important decisions. Caring for a flock is different from bringing home a puppy or taking in a stray kitten, and quite frankly, it ends up not being right for everyone who tries it. A little planning goes a long way toward a good first attempt at raising chickens. Homesteading: legal issues and backyard chickens To know whether you can legally keep chickens, first you need to know the zoning of your property. Next, ask your government officials about any laws regarding keeping animals and erecting sheds or other kinds of animal housing in your zone. You need to be concerned about two types of laws and ordinances before you begin to raise chickens: Laws concerning the ownership of animals at your home location: Restrictions may cover the number of birds, the sex of the birds, and where on the property chicken coops can be located. In some areas, the amount of property you have and your closeness to neighbors may determine whether you can keep birds and, if so, how many. Your neighbor may own 5 acres and be allowed to keep chickens, but on your 2-acre lot, poultry may be prohibited. Or you may be allowed to keep so many pets per acre, including chickens. Or you may need to get written permission from neighbors. Many other rules can apply. Laws that restrict the types of housing or pens you can construct: Do you need a permit to build a chicken coop? Does it need to be inspected? Don’t take the word of neighbors, your aunt, or other people not connected to local government that it’s okay to raise chickens at your home. If you’re in the midst of buying a home, don’t even take the word of real estate agents about being able to keep chickens or even about the property zoning. You never know whether the information you’re getting is legitimate when it comes from a secondary source, so it's best to go straight to the primary source of legal info. Basic chicken care and requirements Chickens can take as much time and money as you care to spend, but you need to recognize the minimum commitments required to keep chickens. In the next sections, we give you an idea of what those minimums are. Time When we speak about time here, we’re referring to daily caretaking chores. Count on a minimum of 15 minutes in the morning and in the evening to care for chickens in a small flock, if you don’t spend a lot of time just observing their antics. Even if you install automatic feeders and waterers, a good chicken-keeper should check on the flock twice a day. If you have laying hens, collect the eggs once a day, which shouldn’t take long. Try to attend to your chickens’ needs before they go to bed for the night and after they're up in the morning. Ideally, chickens need 14 hours of light and 10 hours of darkness. In the winter, you can adjust artificial lighting so that it accommodates your schedule. Turning on lights to do chores after chickens are sleeping is stressful for them. You will need additional time once a week for basic cleaning chores. If you have just a few chickens, these chores may be less than an hour. The routine will include removing manure, adding clean litter, scrubbing water containers, and refilling feed bins. Depending on your chicken-keeping methods, you may need additional time every few months for more intensive cleaning. Space We devote an entire section of this minibook to the all-important chicken coop, and then provide step-by-step plans for building your own. For now, here are some basic space requirements for your birds. Each full-size adult chicken needs at least 2 square feet of floor space for shelter and another 3 square feet in outside run space if it isn’t going to be running loose much. So, a chicken shelter for four hens needs to be about 2 feet by 4 feet, and the outside pen needs to be another 2 feet by 6 feet, to make your total space used 2 feet by 10 feet (these dimensions don’t have to be exact). For more chickens, you need more space, and you need a little space to store feed and maybe a place to store the used litter and manure. Of course, more space for the chickens is always better. As far as height goes, the chicken coop doesn’t have to be more than 3 feet high. But you may want your coop to be tall enough that you can walk upright inside it. Besides the size of the space, you need to think about location, location, location. You probably want your space somewhere other than the front yard, and you probably want the chicken coop to be as far from your neighbors as possible, to lessen the chance that they complain. Money Unless you plan on purchasing rare breeds that are in high demand, the cost of purchasing chickens won’t break most budgets. Adult hens that are good layers cost less than $10 each. Chicks of most breeds cost a few dollars each. Sometimes you can even get free chickens! The cost of adult fancy breeds kept for pets ranges from a few dollars to much, much more, depending on the breed. Housing costs are extremely variable, but they are one-time costs. If you have a corner of a barn or an old shed to convert to housing and your chickens will be free-ranging most of the time, your housing start-up costs will be low — maybe less than $50. If you want to build a fancy chicken shed with a large outside run, your cost could be hundreds of dollars. If you want to buy a pre-built structure for a few chickens, count on a couple hundred dollars. You may have a few other one-time costs for coop furnishings, including feeders, waterers, and nest boxes. For four hens, clever shopping should get you these items for less than $50. Bargain hunters can often find used equipment online. Check websites such as Craigslist or eBay, or ask on neighborhood social networks (the modern-day “classifieds”). Lots of people go gung-ho raising chickens and then call it quits after just a year or two; you may be able to score a good bit of gently-used gear at a bargain price! Commercial chicken feed is reasonably priced, generally comparable to common brands of dry dog and cat food. How many chickens you have determines how much you use: Count on about a third to a half pound of feed per adult, full-sized bird per day. We estimate the cost of feed for three to four layers to be less than $20 per month. What kind of chicken farming do you want to do? You may be nostalgic for the chickens scratching around in Grandma’s yard. You may have heard that chickens control flies and ticks and turn the compost pile. You may have children who want to raise chickens for a 4-H project. Maybe you want to produce your own quality eggs or organic meat. Or maybe you want to provoke the neighbors. People raise chickens for dozens of reasons. But if you aren’t sure, it helps to decide in advance just why you want to keep chickens. Egg layers, meat birds, and pet/show chickens have slightly different housing and care requirements. Having a purpose in mind as you select breeds and develop housing will keep you from making expensive mistakes and will make your chicken-keeping experience more enjoyable. It’s okay to keep chickens for several different purposes — some for eggs and others as show birds, for example — but thinking about your intentions in advance makes good sense. Want eggs (and, therefore, layers)? The egg that we enjoy with breakfast was meant to be food for a developing chick. Luckily for us, a hen continues to deposit eggs regardless of whether they have been fertilized to begin an embryo. If you want layers, you need housing that includes nest boxes for them to lay their eggs in and a way to easily collect those eggs. Layers appreciate some outdoor space; if you have room for them to do a little roaming around the yard, your eggs will have darker yolks and you will need less feed. Thinking about home-grown meat? Don’t expect to save lots of money raising your own chickens for meat unless you regularly pay a premium price for organic free-range chickens at the store. Most homeowners raising chickens for home use wind up paying as much per pound as they would buying chicken on sale at the local big-chain store. But that’s not why you want to raise them. You want to raise your own chickens because you can control what they eat and how they are treated. You want to take responsibility for the way some of your food is produced and take pride in knowing how to do it. You need enough space to raise at least 10 to 25 birds to make meat production worthwhile. If you live in an urban area that allows only a few chickens, producing meat probably isn’t for you. Average people who have the space and enough time can successfully raise all the chicken they want to eat in a year. And with modern meat-type chickens, you can be eating fried homegrown chicken 10 weeks after you get the chicks — or even sooner. Raising chickens to eat isn’t going to be easy, especially at first. But it isn’t so hard that you can’t master it. For most people, the hardest part is the butchering, but the good news is that you can usually find folks who will do that job for you for a fee. You can raise chickens that taste just like the chickens you buy in the store, but if you intend to raise free-range or pastured meat chickens, expect to get used to a new flavor. The meat has more muscle, or dark meat, and a different flavor. For most people, it’s a better flavor, but it may take some getting used to. Consider neighbors Neighbors are any people who are in sight, sound, and smelling distance of your chickens. Even if it’s legal in your urban or suburban area to keep chickens, the law may require your neighbors’ approval and continued tolerance. And it pays to keep your neighbors happy anyway. If neighbors don’t even know the chickens exist, they won’t complain. If they know about them but get free eggs, they probably won’t complain, either. A constant battle with neighbors who don’t like your chickens may lead to the municipality banning your chickens — or even banning everyone’s chickens. Regardless of your situation, the following list gives you some ideas to keep you in your neighbors’ good graces: Try to hide housing or blend it into the landscape. If you can disguise the chicken quarters in the garden or hide them behind the garage, so much the better. Don’t locate your chickens close to the property line, if at all possible. Keep your chicken housing neat and clean. Your chicken shelter should be neat and immaculately clean. Store or dispose of manure and other wastes properly. Consider where you’re going to store or dispose of manure and other waste. You can’t use poultry manure in the garden without some time to age because it burns plants. It makes good compost, but a pile of pure chicken manure composting may offend some neighbors. You may need to bury waste or haul it away. Or if you’re already composting in the garden like a good homesteader, consider adding your chicken manure to your pile. It may help mask the smell of the manure and enrich your overall mix. Even if roosters are legal, consider doing without them. You may love the sound of a rooster greeting the day, but the noise can be annoying to some people. Roosters can and do crow at all times of the day — and even at night. Roosters aren’t necessary for full egg production anyway; they’re needed only for producing fertile eggs for hatching. Keep your chicken population low. If you have close neighbors, try to restrain your impulses to have more chickens than you really need. We suggest two hens for each family member for egg production. The more chickens you keep, the more likely you'll have objections to noise or smells. Confine chickens to your property. Foraging chickens can roam a good distance. Chickens can easily destroy a newly planted vegetable garden, uproot young perennials, and pick the blossoms off annuals. They can make walking barefoot across the lawn or patio a sticky situation. Mean roosters can scare or even harm small children and pets. And if your neighbor comes out one morning and finds your chickens roosting on the top of his new car, he’s not going to be happy. You can fence your property if you want to and if it’s legal to do so but remember that lightweight hens and bantams can easily fly up on and go over a 4-foot fence. Some heavier birds may also learn to hop the fence. Chickens are also great at wriggling through small holes if the grass looks greener on the other side. Be aggressive about controlling pests. In urban and suburban areas, you must have an aggressive plan to control pest animals such as rats and mice. If your chickens are seen as the source of these pests, neighbors may complain. Share the chicken benefits. Bring some eggs to your neighbors or allow their kids to feed the chickens. A gardening neighbor may like to have your manure and soiled bedding for compost. Just do what you can to make chickens seem like a mutually beneficial endeavor. Never butcher a chicken in view of the neighbors. Neighbors may go along with you having chickens as pets or for eggs, but they may have strong feelings about raising them for meat. If you butcher at home, you need a way to dispose of blood, feathers, and other waste. This waste smells and attracts flies and other pests. Those of you who raise meat birds and have close neighbors should send your birds out to be butchered. Finally, don’t assume that because you and your neighbors are good friends, they won’t care or complain about any chickens kept illegally. Getting the right number of chickens for a backyard homestead No matter how many chickens you intend to have eventually, if you’re new to chicken-keeping, it pays to start off small. Get some experience caring for the birds and see whether you really want to have more. Even if you have some experience, you may want to go to larger numbers of birds in steps, making sure you have proper housing and enough time to care for the birds at each step. Because chickens are social and don’t do well alone, you need to start with at least two birds: two hens or a rooster and a hen. (Two roosters will fight!) Beyond two birds, the number of birds you choose to raise depends on your needs and situation: Layers: You can figure that one young hen of an egg-laying strain will lay about six eggs a week, two will lay a dozen eggs, and so on. If the birds aren’t from an egg-laying strain but you still want eggs, count on three or four hens for a dozen eggs a week. So, figure out how many hens you need based on how many eggs your family uses in a week — just don’t forget to figure on more hens if you don’t get them from an egg-laying strain. Meat birds: It really doesn’t pay to raise just a few chickens for meat, but if your goal is to produce meat and space is limited, you can raise meat birds in batches of 10 to 25 birds, with each batch of broiler strains taking about six to nine weeks to grow to butchering size. If space and time to care for the birds aren’t problems, determine how many chickens your family eats in a week and base your number of meat birds on that. If it takes six to nine weeks to raise chickens to butchering age and your family wants two chickens a week, you probably want to buy your meat chickens in batches of 25 and start another group as soon as you butcher the first. Or if you want a rest between batches, raise 50 to 60 meat chicks at a time and start the second batch about three months after the first. Remember that frozen chicken retains good quality for about 6 months. Pet and show birds: When you’re acquiring chickens for pet and show purposes, you’re limited only by your housing size and the time and resources you have to care for them. Full-size birds need about 2 square feet of shelter space per bird; bantam breeds need somewhat less. Don’t overcrowd your housing. If you’re going to breed chickens to preserve a breed or produce show stock, plan on at least two hens for each rooster, but not more than ten. In some large breeds with low fertility, you may need a ratio of five or six hens per rooster.

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Homesteading: What You Need to Brew Beer

Article / Updated 09-02-2019

As a backyard homesteader, you’re already eating the fruits of your labor that come out of your garden. Why not bring that same do-it-yourself mentality to something you enjoy out of a glass, too? Homebrewed beer can be every bit as good as — if not better than — a lot of commercial beer, with more flavor and character than most. In fact, avoiding mass-market beer was the original inspiration for homebrewing. Since homebrewing became legal almost 30 years ago, the interest in hand-crafted beer has blossomed. But forget any preconceived notions you may have about shiny copper kettles and coils taking up your whole kitchen and huge wooden vats bubbling and churning in the cellar — those notions are the product of vivid imaginations and vintage Hollywood movies. Human civilization is well into the stainless-steel and plastic age, where everything is smaller, more durable, and lighter. You can brew your own beer with minimal equipment — readily available in simple kit form — and a short time commitment. A batch of beer is about a three-week process (on the short end), but that includes only four to six hours of work; the rest is waiting as you let the beer do its thing. Adding some homebrewing efforts to your homestead will be pretty painless — and with a tasty, frothy reward waiting for you at the end! Homebrewing supplies To the first-time brewer, the vast quantities of equipment and ingredient choices related to homebrewing can be somewhat intimidating. Homebrewing equipment varies, as shown, but any homebrew supply shop worth its salt can get you what you need to get started. If you don’t have a local homebrew supply retailer in your area, mail order is the next best option. Many mail-order shops have toll-free phone numbers or websites for ordering, and most offer free catalogs. At the beginner level, the minimum amount of equipment you need to brew beer correctly will cost about $70. This setup is relatively bare-bones, but it’s enough to get you up and running. As you become more familiar and comfortable with the processes and procedures, you'll want to acquire additional and better equipment. To help you get the wheels turning, the following table provides a starter list of necessary items and their approximate costs. Beginner Brewing Equipment and Its Cost Equipment Approximate Cost Brew pot, 16 qt. minimum $40/20 qt., $80/30 qt. Brew spoon (HDPE plastic) $4 or less Primary fermenter (HDPE plastic) with spigot, lid $20 or less Airlock $2 or less Drilled rubber stopper for airlock $2 or less 3 to 4 feet of food-grade plastic hose, 1/2 inch in diameter $3 Bottling or “priming” bucket (HDPE plastic) with spigot $15 or less Bottles (must be the reusable type that don’t use twist-off caps) $20–$30 for one batch of beer (5 gallons); the exact number of bottles depends on their size: 12 oz., 16 oz., 22 oz., or 1 qt. Bottle rinser $12 Bottle brush $3 Bottling tube (HDPE plastic) with spring valve $4 or less Bottle capper $35 (bench-type) or $15 (two-handed) Hydrometer (triple scale) with cylinder $10 ($5 or less for the cylinder) How much does a homebrewed batch cost? The average batch of homebrewed beer is 5 gallons, or 53.3 12-ounce bottles of beer. At the beginner level, the ingredients for a typical batch run about $30 to $35. The amount you pay fluctuates because of many factors, including where you shop for your ingredients (don’t forget shipping charges for mail order), whether you buy top- or bottom-of-the-line ingredients, and the style of beer you like to brew. Big-bodied, alcoholic beers require more fermentable ingredients than do light-bodied, watery beers. (Barley wines can cost as much as 100 percent more to make than pale ales, for example.) Homebrew ingredients Brewing uses grain (mostly malted barley), hops, yeast, and water. Thanks to many stores and Internet sites that specialize in brew supplies, homebrewers today have access to most of the same ingredients used by corporate brewhouses everywhere. Of course, these shops don’t just provide the everyday ingredients for the average beer; different hop varieties and yeast strains from around the world are now available in the homebrewing market. Grain Of the four main ingredients used to make beer (barley, hops, yeast, and water), barley — really, grain in general — makes the biggest contribution. It’s responsible for giving beer its color, underlying flavor, sweetness, body, head of foam, and mouthfeel (the textural qualities of beer on your palate and in your throat — viscosity, or thickness, carbonation, alcohol warmth, and so on). Grains also contribute the natural sugars that feed the yeast, which in turn converts the sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide during fermentation. Before you can brew with barley, it must undergo a process known as malting. The malting process, simply put, simulates the grain’s natural germination cycle. Only after the barley has undergone the malting process does it become malt, or barley malt. Hops If malts represent the sugar in beer, hops surely represent the spice. In fact, you use hops in beer in much the same way that you use spices in cooking. The divine mission of hops is to accent the flavor of beer and, most importantly, contrast the sweetness of the malt. Hops contribute bitterness (to offset the sweet flavor of malt), a zesty flavoring (to accent the malt character), a pungent floral or herbal aroma, bacterial inhibitors, and natural clarifying agents. The hop cones used in the brewing process grow on vines that may reach 25 feet on commercial hop farms. Hop plants are hardy perennial plants that are prolific under ideal conditions, and each may produce up to 2 pounds of dried hop cones per season. Traditionally, brewers handpicked hops from the vine and air-dried them in bulk before tossing them whole into the brew kettle. Today, however, hops are processed and sold in four forms: small processed pellets, larger compressed plugs, whole-leaf hops, and concentrated liquid hop extract. Yeast Although yeast is an ingredient that the average beer consumer rarely contemplates, brewers often consider it the most important ingredient. Yeast can have a greater influence and effect on the finished beer than any other single ingredient. Yeast is a member of the fungus family. It’s a living single-celled organism and one of the simplest forms of life. Because it has cell-splitting capabilities, it’s also self-reproducing. Yeast is the one ingredient responsible for carrying out the fermentation process in brewing: simply put, the natural conversion of sugar to alcohol. Brewers categorize and classify beer styles by the type of yeast used to ferment them. Therefore, they choose a yeast according to the style of beer they want to make: ale or lager. Ale yeast is a top-fermenting strain, meaning it floats on the top of the beer. Virtually all ale yeast works best in fairly warm temperatures (60 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit). Lager yeast is a bottom-fermenting strain (meaning it sinks to the bottom of the fermentation vessel at the end of fermentation) and works best between 38 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Yeast for the homebrewer comes in both a dry form and a liquid form. Because of its convenience, dry yeast — granulated and contained in a small packet — is recommended for beginners. The packets that come with malt extract kits are sufficient to ferment a 5-gallon batch of homebrew. Dry yeast is freeze-dried, so it should last a long time (but refrigerate all yeast to maintain optimum freshness). For the best results with dry yeast, always rehydrate the dormant cells by pouring them into a cup of warm water. This gentle wake-up call prepares the yeast for the upcoming fermentation. Be sure to sanitize the vessel in which you rehydrate the yeast. Water Considering that it constitutes up to 95 percent of a beer’s total ingredient profile, water can have a tremendous influence on the finished product. The various minerals and salts found in water used for brewing can accentuate beer flavors or contribute undesirable flavor components. In many cases, water chemistry is key in the flavor profile of a classic beer style. That said, you can still make good beer with average tap water. Thousands of homebrewers are proving it every day. A general rule says, “If your water tastes good, so will your beer.” At any skill level, make sure that you keep the following things in mind: If your water is from a private underground well, it may be high in iron and other minerals that may affect your beer’s taste. If your water is softened, it may be high in sodium. If your water is supplied by a municipal water department, it may have a high chlorine content. Other than chlorine, the filtering (the primary method of removing elements and impurities from water) performed at municipal water sources usually produces water that is sufficiently pure for brewing. High iron, sodium, and chlorine contents in your brewing water are not desirable. If these minerals are present in your brewing water, you may want to consider buying bottled water for your brewing needs. If you choose to buy your water, you may be tempted to buy distilled water because it’s the purest form available. But distilled water is also devoid of some of the important natural elements beneficial to beer.

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Homesteading: How to Prepare Foods for Cold Storage

Article / Updated 09-02-2019

A thriving vegetable garden is essential for most backyard homesteads. Like more traditional homesteaders, you need food storage that doesn't rely on preservatives and electricity. Cold storage is the answer, but not all foods are suitable for root cellars and other storage options. Foods that store well are generally the less juicy and delicate things, such as root vegetables and firm fruits. The following discussion lists several fruits and vegetables that keep very well in cold storage. They are foods that many families enjoy; they provide a fresh taste when bland winter fare abounds; and they extend your food pantry to include fresh, tasty choices. (Note: You may be able to extend the life of more tender foods, such as eggplant or broccoli, but don’t count on them lasting for months as the other foods will. You can keep these treats in storage about two weeks, but no longer.) As a general rule, harvest root crops as late as you can in the season and don’t wash the dirt from the roots. Simply use your hand or a rag to remove some of the loose soil. How to store apples Storing apples works very well. Choose a variety that is known for storage. Kept well, apples can last throughout the entire winter — four to six months! Toward the end of that time, a perfectly good apple may become slightly shriveled. This is simply from the loss of moisture, not nutrition. Choose apples that are unblemished and firm (they shouldn’t give at all when pressed). Check in bright light for dents and soft spots. To store, layer the apples carefully in very cold temperatures (between 30 and 35 degrees), with a high humidity between 80 and 90 percent. (Place a pan of water in the area where they’re stored.) Try covering your bin of apples with a damp (not dripping) cloth, which remains damp for at least a day. And make it a habit to replace the cloth every couple of days when you check other stored produce. How to store beets Beets are prolific and inexpensive to grow, meaning you’ll end up with plenty for storage if you plant a few rows in your homestead garden. Harvest beets late in the season, after the nights become freezing cold. If you’re buying beets at a farmer’s market, look for fresh, crisp tops. This is the best indication that the beets are just picked. To prepare the beets for storage, cut off the tops, leaving the beet itself intact (don’t wash them). Then place the beets in your coldest storage, temperatures just above freezing, 32 to 40 degrees, with 90 to 95 percent humidity. To increase humidity naturally, place the beets on moist sand. Some gardeners recommend leaving beets in the ground, covered with a thick layer of straw. They say beets and other root crops can be harvested directly from the ground into the coldest part of the winter. Be aware, though, that rodents may destroy root crops before you get a chance to harvest them. So, before you follow the advice of the “leave ’em in the ground” crowd, make sure you — and not rodents — will be the benefactors. How to store cabbage Cabbage adds bulk and crunch to many winter dishes and is a great crop for homesteading. Keeping cabbage in storage requires a few extra precautions, however, to ensure that it remains useable throughout the winter and doesn’t ruin other food nearby. First, cabbage gives off a strong odor while in storage, which is normal (don’t confuse this smell with spoilage). The problem with the smell is that apples and other fruits can absorb the flavor of cabbage. The key is to make sure you don’t store cabbage too closely to these other types of foods. If you must store cabbage close to other foods, wrap individual heads with newspaper to contain the odor. The longer cabbage remains in storage, the stronger the taste when it’s cooked. If your family does not like the stronger taste, plan on using up cabbage early in the storage season. Second, cabbage needs to be stored in a damp area. If you store cabbage in a place that’s too dry, the heads dry out, and the dry, wilted leaves are wasted. Fortunately, you can take care of this tendency with a simple pan of water. To prepare cabbage for storage, choose unblemished cabbage that has not been picked for long. Remove the tough outer leaves. Wrap each head in newspaper and store it where temperatures are just above freezing, 32 to 40 degrees, and the humidity levels are between 80 to 90 percent. Place a pan of water near the cabbage to provide enough moisture during storage. How to store carrots Carrots are another root vegetable that stores well and tastes sweet and crisp throughout the winter months. Just as you do with beets, pick carrots as late as possible in the season. Avoid any that have grown too large and pithy, however, because these carrots have used up their natural sweetness and will taste bitter. To prepare carrots for storage, trim off the tops, leaving the carrot itself intact. Don’t wash them; simply brush off excess soil if you want to. Place carrots with beets in coldest storage of 32 to 40 degrees with high humidity of 90 to 95 percent. Carrots do especially well in moist sand. How to store garlic You can never have enough garlic, especially since garlic is so easy to store. If you’re growing your own garlic, simply pull the bulbs after the tops have dried and fallen over. Allow the garlic bulbs to dry thoroughly out of direct sunlight until the outside of the bulbs has become dry and papery. Purchased garlic bulbs have already been dried. Look for the papery outer layer that you always see on a store-bought bulb. Dry bulbs on newspaper outside during the warm summer days but bring them in during the cool nights to prevent condensation. Repeat this process for a few days, until the garlic is completely dry. When the garlic is thoroughly dry, tie bunches of tops together, braid in attractive garlic braids. Alternatively, you can trim tops from bulbs and place them in women’s stockings, tying a knot between bulbs. You can hang this long chain of bulbs on a nail in a cool and slightly damp area. You may have luck placing garlic in a cool coat room, instead of an actual root cellar. They are in a convenient location for cooking, and let’s face it, they make quite a conversation piece! If you do keep them in cold storage, place them in 30 to 45 degrees with a humidity level of 60 to 70 percent. How to store onions Most onions keep very well in cold storage. Some varieties, such as the extra sweet onions, however, don’t last long. When planting, choose varieties that say they work well for storage (you’ll see the term good keeper). These onions last throughout the storage season. Harvest onions the same as garlic. Pull them when the tops turn brown and fall over. They must then be cured, like garlic: Place them on newspaper to dry during the warm days, bringing them in during the cool night hours to avoid condensation buildup. When storing purchased onions, you don’t have to worry about this step. They are already dried for you. To store, gently place onions in a crate, loose mesh bag, or ladies’ stockings, tying a knot between each onion. To prevent mildew on onion skins, air circulation is vital, so make sure your cold storage has adequate ventilation (see the earlier section “Finding the Perfect Place for Cold Storage”). The ideal storage conditions are temperatures of 35 to 40 degrees and humidity of 60 to 70 percent. If, throughout the season, you find onions with some mildew on them, simply use those onions first. Generally, the mildew is on the outer layers, leaving the inside onions fresh. How to store pears Pears store very well and make a nice change from apples. In years when apples are affected by blight or scald and are too expensive, pears can be more available. Pick pears you plan to store when they’re just ripened. (Don’t choose pears that are too ripe, or soft; simply leaning against each other can cause them to bruise.) To help protect the fruit, wrap each pear in a sheet of newspaper before storing. Keep temperatures cold, 30 to 35 degrees, with high humidity (80 to 90 percent). Pears can keep for several months in this manner. How to store potatoes Potatoes are the easiest of all fruits and vegetables to store. To prepare for storage, harvest late in the season. Don’t wash the potatoes; instead remove excess soil with your hand or a soft rag. Inspect them carefully for bruising or nicks in the skin (fresh potatoes have a more delicate skin than those that have been harvested for a few days). If you find any bruising or nicks, keep these potatoes out of storage and use them within a few days. Store potatoes in complete darkness at 32 to 40 degrees and 80 to 90 percent humidity. Every week, check them for damage. At least once a month, turn and rearrange them. Finally, don’t let them freeze. A frozen potato is a ruined potato; it can’t be saved. The most important rule for storing potatoes is to store them in complete darkness. First, the darkness signals dormancy for the potato, and it won’t sprout. Second, potatoes subjected to light become bitter over time. Other than perfect darkness, potatoes really do well in almost all storage conditions. How to store turnips Turnips are an underappreciated root crop. They are easy to grow: You simply plant them early in the season, weed them a few times, and harvest them late in the season, after the nights become freezing cold, sometime in November. To prepare turnips for storage, don’t wash them. Simply brush off any excess soil with your hand or a rag, and trim off the turnip tops. Store them in your coldest storage area; just above freezing is ideal (temperatures of 30 to 40 degrees). The humidity should be high; between 90 to 95 percent is optimal. Turnips are another food that stores well in damp sand. Consider turnips a crop that provides two separate foods: the greens and the root. So, after you trim the tops to prepare the root for cold storage, don’t throw away the greens. You can dry them for use later. How to store tomatoes You may be surprised to see tomatoes, which are both fragile and juicy, in this list of good cold-storage vegetables. Tomatoes can, however, be kept for a limited period of time in cold storage. When you store tomatoes, you store the whole plant, not just the individual tomatoes. So, at the end of the growing season, select any tomato plants that have fruit with the slightest hint of ripening (any color change, from slight yellow to orange) and follow these steps: Remove any fruits from the plant that are still fully green or too small to ever ripen. Pull the entire plant out of the ground and hang it upside down in temperatures between 55 and 70 degrees, with moderate humidity of 60 to 70 percent. An unheated garage or cellar stairwell works great for this. The tomatoes will ripen slowly over time, right on the vine. You will be amazed at the vine-fresh flavor.

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Homesteading: How to Find the Perfect Place for Cold Storage

Article / Updated 09-02-2019

When your ancestors were homesteading in the days before refrigeration and artificial preservatives, cold storage was the way to go if they needed to store produce over the winter. The basic idea behind cold storage is that you can prolong the shelf life of both fresh and canned produce by keeping them in a cool, dark place under just the right conditions. As a modern-day backyard homesteader, you can combine the perfect mix of temperature and humidity to expand your storage to encompass a large variety of foods. Temperature and humidity aren’t the only considerations, however. An area used for cold storage also needs to have proper ventilation to keep the food as fresh as possible. And ease of access is vital, too. Temperature: Cold storage temperatures range from 32 to 60 degrees. The right temperature for any given food is one that slows the enzymes responsible for decay. Different foods require different storage temperatures. Beets, for example, need temps just above freezing; pumpkins and squashes, on the other hand, need temps in the 50- to 60- degree range. Humidity: Depending on the foods you want to store, your root cellar or alternative cold storage area needs a humidity range from 60 to 95 percent. Foods such as carrots, parsnips, and turnips store best at 90 to 95 percent humidity. Sweet potatoes and onions, on the other hand, do much better at a humidity of no more than 70 percent. If you plan to store foods that require very different humidity and temperature levels, you need to use more than one storage area. It’s not uncommon to have a dry cold storage area with lower humidity (like you’d get in an area that has a cement floor) and a higher humidity area (which you get in an area with a dirt or gravel floor). To keep track of temperature and humidity level in the air, buy a simple thermometer unit, called a hydrometer. Ventilation: No matter what type of storage area you choose, it must be able to let warm air out and cool air in. Ease of access: Because you have to regularly check your stored food, you need a place that is easy to get into and that allows you to easily move things around. Tried and true: The traditional root cellar Root cellars have had a long and important place in the history of food storage. Root cellars were most often the actual cellar of old homes and farmhouses. These older houses had cellars with dirt floors, perfect for keeping foods cool and the humidity higher than average. If you’re lucky enough to have a dirt-floor root cellar, you just need to provide sturdy shelving and rodent-proof the area by covering any holes or potential rodent-friendly entryways with wire mesh. You can also place rodent bait in out-of-the-way areas and check often for rodent activity. A preexisting root cellar usually contains some sort of air vent or pipe located at the top of the area to allow warm air to rise and escape. If you don’t have a preexisting air vent, periodically open a window or door to the outside to allow warm air out and fresh air in. In modern homes, cellars (or basements) often have concrete floors and are generally too warm and dry for food storage. Carefully measure your temperature and moisture content before placing your produce in a cellar that may not have optimum conditions. DIY food storage spaces If you don’t have a cellar with a dirt floor, there are alternatives. Take a look at your cellar layout and consider the areas suggested in the following sections. Stairwells Does a stairwell lead from your basement to the outside? If so, add an insulated door to separate the stairwell from the main room, and voilá, you have a cold storage space that has built-in shelves: the stairs! Just place bins of produce on each step and pans of water under the stairs for moisture, and you have an efficient storage area, as shown in the following figure. A stairwell is particularly good because the stairs create areas with varying temperatures, allowing for a wide array of conditions that can benefit many different kinds of foods. Be sure to place a hydrometer in this area, as well as a few, inexpensive thermometers on different steps, to gauge the best conditions for your stored foods. There will be quite a variation in temperature as you go up the stairs. Storm shelters Do you have a storm shelter (also called a storm cellar)? In the Midwest, storm shelters are often underground cellars separate from the house or basement. (Think of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, when she runs through the yard to get to the storm cellar during the tornado.) These shelters are perfect for adding some shelves and neat bins of produce. They’re below the frost line, have adequate ventilation, and are weatherproof. Whether your home had a storm shelter when you moved in or you decided to build one yourself, be certain to block any ventilation pipes with fine screen to keep out rodent activity. Your stored foods will be used up long before the storm season approaches. Even so, keep your cold storage organized and neat. Straw-bale storage If you have a small area in your yard, you can construct a simple straw-bale storage area to hold your root crops, such as potatoes, rutabagas, turnips, and parsnips. The best location for straw-bale storage is one that tends to stay dry. Don’t place these storage areas in high moisture areas (where you generally have a buildup of snowdrift, for example, or where water tends to puddle after storms). Also, don’t build one close to buildings that protect the area from winter temperatures. You want the straw bales to be able to stay freezing cold on the outside and yet insulate the produce inside. After you’ve found a suitable location, follow these steps to build your storage area: Place two bales of straw in a line, with the ends touching. About 16 inches away, place two more bales parallel to the first two. The spacing is adequate for the bales that are laid on top to cover the open space completely. Place one straw bale on each of the remaining ends to enclose a box shape in the center. You’ve just made a large square in the center. Cover the ground in the center of the square with a screen. You don’t have use the screen, but doing so helps keep your produce protected from critters that may be inclined to dig under the whole thing. Layer some soft straw on the bottom of the square to cushion the produce. If you put a screen in the center, place the straw over the screen. Layer your root crops, very gently, into the bin. Take care to not dump or toss your vegetables. Bruised food quickly turns to spoiled food. When the bin is full, layer another couple of inches of straw onto the food. Place bales of straw across the top of the now-filled bin. Your food is now protected from winter in a breathable storage bin. To check on or access the food inside, simply remove the top two bales. Replace the bales carefully and evenly to cover the hole each time. In the late spring, or when the straw-bale storage area is empty, simply take the bin apart, and use the straw as mulch for your garden. Some people use hay bales for these storage bins, but we don’t recommend it. Hay molds rather quickly, sometimes spoiling the produce inside. Hay bales also seem to absorb more moisture than straw bales. If you use hay, check periodically for moisture damage, and remove the offending produce immediately. Rubber trash cans You can bury these up to their rims in the ground, place your produce inside, put on the lid, and then cover the whole thing with a thick layer of straw for a simple cold storage arrangement. These bins are easy to wash and the tight lids keep the foods fresh and sanitary and keep rodents out. Your cold storage needs probably will be dictated by the type of vegetables you can grow in and the size of your homestead garden. See "How to Determine the Location and Size of Your Backyard Homestead Garden."

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How to Determine the Location and Size of Your Backyard Homestead Garden

Article / Updated 09-01-2019

A lush, bountiful vegetable garden is the centerpiece of any backyard homestead. Everyone loves good food. And what better way to have fresh, tasty, and nutritious food than to grow it yourself? You don’t have to be a farmer to do so either. When considering where to plop down your homestead's garden plot, think of these three main elements, which are necessary for the perfect spot: site, sun, and soil. Don’t be discouraged if you lack the ideal garden spot — few gardeners have one. Just try to make the most of what you have. Homesteading and your weather conditions The first step in planting wisely is understanding your region’s climate, as well as your landscape’s particular attributes. Then you can effectively match plants to planting sites. Don’t use geographic proximity alone to evaluate climate. Two places near each other geographically can have very different climates if one is high on a mountainside and the other is on the valley floor, for example. Also, widely separated regions can have similar climates. USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map Low winter temperatures limit where most plants will grow. After compiling weather data collected over many years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) divided North America, Europe, and China into 11 zones. Each zone represents an expected average annual minimum temperature. On the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map for North America (see the following figure), each of the 11 zones is 10°F warmer or colder in an average winter than the adjacent zone. The warmest zone, Zone 11, records an average low annual temperature of 40°F or higher. In Zone 1, the lowest average annual temperature drops to minus 50°F or colder. Brrr! Zones 2 through 10 on some North American maps are further subdivided into a and b regions. The lowest average annual temperature in Zone 5a, for example, is 5°F warmer than the temperature in Zone 5b. When choosing plants that are just barely hardy in your zone, knowing whether your garden falls into the a or b category can ease your decision. After a few years of personal weather observation in your own garden, you’ll have a pretty clear idea of what to expect for winter low temperatures too. Most books, catalogs, magazines, and plant labels use the USDA zone system. For a color version, which may be a bit easier to read, visit the U.S. National Arboretum website, which offers a map of North America and individual regions. The USDA map is based on a single factor: a region’s average minimum winter temperature. Many other factors affect a plant’s ability to thrive in a particular environment, so use the map only as a guideline. AHS Heat Zone Map To help gardeners in warm climates, the American Horticultural Society developed the AHS Heat Zone Map. This map divides the United States into 12 zones based on the average number of heat days each year — days that reach temperatures of 86°F or higher. Zone 1 has fewer than one heat day per year; Zone 12 has more than 210. Order your own color poster of the AHS Heat Zone Map by calling the society at (800) 777-7931, ext. 137. Or visit the American Horticulture Society’s website for more information and a downloadable map. The site also offers a Heat Zone Finder to locate your particular heat zone by zip code. Sunset map In an attempt to take total climate into consideration when evaluating plant hardiness, Sunset Publishing created Sunset’s Garden Climate Zones, a map that divides the country into 24 zones. This map is especially useful to gardeners in the western United States, where mountains, deserts, and coastal areas create wildly diverse climates, sometimes within a few miles of each other. Although most national plant suppliers and references use the USDA zone map, regional garden centers and growers in the western half of the country often refer to the Sunset map. Factor microclimates into your homestead gardening Within larger climates, smaller pockets exist that differ somewhat from the prevailing weather around them. These microclimates occur wherever a building, body of water, dense shrubs, or hillside modifies the larger climate. Microclimates may be very small, such as the sunny side of your house or the shady side under a tree, or as large as a village. A town on the shore of Lake Michigan has a different microclimate than a town just 20 miles inland, for example. Common microclimates around your property may include the following: North side of the house: Cool and shady year-round South side of the house: Hot and sunny all day; often dry East side of the house: Warm morning sun and cool afternoon shade West side of the house: Morning shade and hot afternoon sun Top of a hill: Exposed to wind and sun; soil dries quickly Bottom of a hill: Collects cold air and may be poorly drained due to precipitation that runs down the slope No doubt you can find other examples on your site as you closely observe the patterns of sun, water, wind, and temperature throughout the year. Plan your landscape and gardens to take advantage of microclimates. Use wind-sheltered areas to protect tender plants from drying winter winds in cold climates and hot, dry winds in arid places. Put plants such as phlox and lilac, which are prone to leaf disease, in breezy garden spots as a natural way to prevent infections. Avoid putting frost-tender plants at the bottoms of hills, where pockets of cold air form. Urban environments typically experience higher temperatures than suburban or rural areas thanks to so many massive heat absorbers such as roofs, steel and glass buildings, concrete, billboards, and asphalt-paved surfaces. And that doesn’t even begin to account for all the waste heat generated by human sources such as cars, air conditioners, and factories. The urban homesteader needs to consider all of these additional factors that could make their microclimate even more of a challenge. How to choose a homestead garden site Choosing a site is the important first step in planning a vegetable garden. This may sound like a tough choice to make, but don’t worry; a lot of the decision is based on good old common sense. When you’re considering a site for your garden, remember these considerations: Keep it close to home. Plant your garden where you’ll walk by it daily so that you remember to care for it. Also, a vegetable garden is a place people like to gather, so keep it close to a pathway. Vegetable gardens used to be relegated to some forlorn location out back. Unfortunately, if it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind. But most homesteaders prefer to plant vegetables front and center — even in the front yard. That way you get to see the fruits of your labor and remember what chores need to be done. Plus, it’s a great way to engage the neighbors as they stroll by and admire your plants. You may even be inspired to share a tomato with them. Make it easy to access. If you need to bring in soil, compost, mulch, or wood by truck or car, make sure your garden can be easily reached by a vehicle. Otherwise you’ll end up working way too hard to cart these essentials from one end of the yard to the other. Have a water source close by. Try to locate your garden as close as you can to an outdoor faucet. Hauling hundreds of feet of hose around the yard to water the garden will cause only more work and frustration. And, hey, isn’t gardening supposed to be fun? Keep it flat. You can garden on a slight slope, and, in fact, a south-facing one is ideal since it warms up faster in spring. However, too severe a slope could lead to erosion problems. To avoid having to build terraces like those at Machu Picchu, plant your garden on flat ground. How big is too big for a veggie garden? If you’re a first-time gardener, a size of 100 square feet is plenty of space to take care of. However, if you want to produce food for storing and sharing, a 20-foot-by-30-foot plot (600 square feet) is a great size. You can produce an abundance of different vegetables and still keep the plot looking good. Speaking of upkeep, keep the following in mind when deciding how large to make your garden: If the soil is in good condition, a novice gardener can keep up with a 600-square-foot garden by devoting about a half-hour each day the first month of the season; in late spring through summer, a good half-hour of work every two to three days should keep the garden productive and looking good. Keep in mind that the smaller the garden, the less time it’ll take to keep it looking great. Plus, after it’s established, the garden will take less time to get up and running in the spring. Let the sun shine on your homestead garden plot Vegetables need enough sun to produce at their best. Fruiting vegetables, such as tomatoes, peppers, beans, squash, melons, cucumbers, and eggplant, need at least six hours of direct sun a day for good yields. The amount of sun doesn’t have to be continuous though. You can have three hours in the morning with some shade midday and then three more hours in the late afternoon. However, if your little piece of heaven gets less than six hours of sun, don’t give up. You have some options: Crops where you eat the leaves, such as lettuce, arugula, pac choi, and spinach, produce reasonably well in a partially shaded location where the sun shines directly on the plants for three to four hours a day. Root crops such as carrots, potatoes, and beets need more light than leafy vegetables, but they may do well getting only four to six hours of sun a day. If you don’t have enough sun to grow all the fruiting crops that you want, such as tomatoes and peppers, consider supplementing with a movable garden. Plant some crops in containers and move them to the sunniest spots in your yard throughout the year. Keep in mind that sun and shade patterns change with the seasons. A site that’s sunny in midsummer may later be shaded by trees, buildings, and the longer shadows of late fall and early spring. If you live in a mild-winter climate, such as parts of the southeastern and southwestern United States where it’s possible to grow vegetables nearly year-round, choosing a spot that’s sunny in winter as well as in summer is important. In general, sites that have clear southern exposure are sunniest in winter. You can have multiple vegetable garden plots around your yard matching the conditions with the vegetables you’re growing. If your only sunny spot is a strip of ground along the front of the house, plant a row of peppers and tomatoes. If you have a perfect location near a backdoor, but it gets only morning sun, plant lettuce and greens in that plot. If shade in your garden comes from nearby trees and shrubs, your vegetable plants will compete for water and nutrients as well as for light. Tree roots extend slightly beyond the drip line, the outer foliage reach of the tree. If possible, keep your garden out of the root zones (the areas that extend from the drip lines to the trunks) of surrounding trees and shrubs. If avoiding root zones isn’t possible, give the vegetables more water and be sure to fertilize to compensate. How to test your soil’s drainage After you’ve checked the site location and sun levels of your prospective garden, you need to focus on the third element of the big three: the soil. Ideally you have rich, loamy, well-drained soil. Unfortunately, that type of soil is a rarity. But a key that’s even more essential to good soil is proper water drainage. Plant roots need air as well as water, and water-logged soils are low in air content. Puddles of water on the soil surface after a rain indicate poor drainage. One way to check your soil’s drainage is to dig a hole about 10 inches deep and fill it with water. Let the water drain and then fill the hole again the following day. Time how long it takes for the water to drain away. If water remains in the hole more than 8 to 10 hours after the second filling, your soil drainage needs improvement. Soils made primarily of clay tend to be considered heavy. Heavy soils usually aren’t as well drained as sandy soils. Adding lots of organic matter to your soil can improve soil drainage. Or you also can build raised beds on a poorly drained site. But slow water drainage isn’t always a bad thing. Soil also can be too well drained. Very sandy soil dries out quickly and needs frequent watering during dry spells. Again, adding lots of organic matter to sandy soil increases the amount of water it can hold. If you encounter a lot of big rocks in your soil, you may want to look for another spot. Or consider going the raised-bed route. You can improve soils that have a lot of clay or that are too sandy, but very rocky soil can be a real headache. In fact, it can be impossible to garden in. Don’t plant your garden near or on top of the leach lines of a septic system, for obvious reasons. And keep away from underground utilities. If you have questions, call your local utility company to locate underground lines. If you’re unsure what’s below ground, visit Call 811 to have lines or pipes identified for free.

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