Dec 9, 2009


The idea of sustaining your own family as much as possible, without the need to rely on goods from stores, is the latest trend. Although I have dreams of homestead living in the country with a small orchard, a good-sized vegetable garden, chickens, goats, and a few other animals, I know that probably isn’t going to happen any time soon. In the meantime, like many of my neighbors, I’m interested in living that dream as much as I can in the suburbs. (Why? Because I think it’s great for the kids and I like the idea of knowing exactly what goes into my food.)

So I was excited to see Abigail R. Gehring’s new book Homesteading and was surprised to find how comprehensive it really is.

The first section covers gardening, focusing not just on vegetables but on ornamentals, too. You’ll find details on choosing the best location for a garden, testing and amending your soil, companion planting (what plants may grow best next to each other), making compost, irrigation (including how to make your own rain barrel – although the author neglects to mention that, crazy as it may seem, some cities and counties do not allow citizens to collect rain water), planting and caring for trees (a section oddly absent of information on fruit and nut trees), growing in containers, and rooftop gardens. There are even sections on growing plants without soil, attracting beneficial insects to your garden, and starting community and school garden. Beginners may find the wealth of information here a bit overwhelming, but it’s nice to know you have all the details you’ll need to start your own garden all in one location.

The next section covers the pantry, with information on choosing locally grown food, joining or starting a co-op, and a pretty extensive section on canning (including many recipes). There’s a shorter section on drying and freezing, which includes a simple design for making a food dryer that hangs over a wood stove, plus a few pages on edible wild plants. This last section, while interesting and accompanied by photographs of each plant, isn’t detailed enough, in my opinion. Great care must be taken when eating wild plants; if you misidentify something, you could poison yourself or someone you love. I don’t feel the author stresses this enough, and if you’re interested in eating wild plants, I suggest you find an excellent field guide for your area. (It should have detailed descriptions of the plants as well as color photographs of them, and must include information on which parts of the plants are edible and how they should be prepared.)

The author also offers great information on making your own butter (in a jar), yogurt, ice cream (in a coffee can), beer, wine, and cheese. There are even basic instructions for making a cheese press for hard cheeses – and the author makes it all look so easy, I think I’ll have to give it a go. I also appreciate the mention of the Plant a Row for the Hungry Program (PAR) and how you can help feed those less fortunate with bounty from your own garden.

The next section is titled “The Backyard Farm” and includes all the basics about the space, time, and energy required to raise animals like chickens, ducks, turkeys, bees, goats, and llamas. The author also offers additional info on such things as building a beehive and milking a goat. Everything you need to determine whether small farm animals are right for you is included, and then some.

This is followed by a section on structures, which offers general information on building fences and gates, dog kennels, birdhouses, stables, hen- and duck houses, foot bridges, sheds, smokehouses, root callers, tree houses, trellises, and weather vanes. At least a little experience working with wood is best before delving into this chapter.

There’s also a chapter on alternative energy. Unfortunately, for most folks the ideas here are either too spendy or will provide only a small amount of energy – but even supplementing your standard energy can be a boon. Topics covered include solar power, wind energy, hydropower, and geothermal power. There’s also information on composting toilets (ideal for locations where it’s impractical or expensive to put in sewer lines) and using grey water. (Again, be careful. Although the author doesn’t note it, in many parts of the country it’s illegal or requires a permit to use grey water.)

There’s also a mish mash of crafts included in this book – some practical (like candle and soap making) and others not (like making potpourri and jewelry). You can learn a bit about pottery, knitting, making paper and bookbinding, trying knots, making kites, and basket weaving, too.

The final sections of the book give the very basics of herbal remedies, listing common plants, what ailments they are sometimes used to treat (exactly how to use and dose the herbs is rarely included), preparing for natural disasters, first aid, stenciling, making your own wall paper, and more.

There are certainly some sections of this book I will never refer to (for example, Feng shui and living in “international communities," i.e. communes). And there are some that, to my way of thinking, stretch the meaning of homesteading, especially as applied to the backyard. However, the sections on raising and caring for animals are more complete than other homesteading books, the canning information is thorough, and there are also great how–to details on gardening, co-ops, and many odds and ends of sustainable living. If you’re interested in being more self sufficient, this book will be a good addition to your bookshelf.

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1 comment:

  1. I think this post is excellent. We live on only about 1/4 acre and can't raise any livestock, but there are things we can do in the way of gardening and homemaking skills to get as close to homesteading as possible. Everyone should try to learn some of these skills because we don't know what tomorrow will bring.