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An old-school cache to store food and supplies

By Setanta O’Ceillaigh

After two very productive gardens and two winters of dehydrating food, I found I had a substantial amount of dried goods in sealed jars. While I was filling my cabin with more jars than I could keep track of, I pondered the possibility of future crop failures — not just of my own garden but regional failures which were common historically. Before the advent of canning in the early 1800s it was not practical to store fruit and vegetables for long periods of time, as mold and insects would eventually spoil even the best laid provisions. Grain was about the only food that could be stored for years reliably. Today we have the luxury of a global market able to move food anywhere in a short time, commercial refrigeration, and, of course, canning jars.

While I have no doubt that a regional crop failure would be addressed by shipping goods in from other parts of the country, I would be assuming I would have the money to buy those goods in such a bad year. If my gardens failed and I could not afford to buy anything, I would be depending on what I canned the previous year. If what I canned was to be lost in any way I would be in a bad situation. Since I had such a large supply of dehydrated food in sealed mason jars, I decided to establish a supply in a barrel cache near a small shack on my property.

The unearthed cache is as fresh, clean, and dry as the day I buried it 17 months earlier.
 

I selected a 55-gallon plastic drum with a removable locking top. I chose an out of the way spot and dug down four feet with a hole big enough to set the barrel down into with the top just below the ground level. Into this barrel I placed a mixed food supply consisting of dehydrated fruit and vegetables, grain, beans, sugar, powdered milk, baking powder, salt, and spices, all in individually sealed containers. I also included a mess kit and stock pot for cooking and boiling water and a bucket with an old coat, wool blanket, and a set of old clothes. I stuffed a hand saw, axe head, knife, wire, multi tool, water filter, candles, rat traps, tarp, and a rope in between the jars as well.

After filling the barrel with supplies, I tossed in a five pound bag of clay cat litter to absorb moisture and humidity. I used latex caulk to coat the rim of the barrel (in addition to the gasket already on the lid) and latched it closed with a metal ring. The sides were filled in around the barrel and wide flat stones were placed over the top. Sand and dirt was shoveled over the stones to fill in between them, then leaves and compost tossed over them. After covering the barrel it would not be easily noticed.

This stash was meant to be sealed and forgotten except in case of dire need, and would provide emergency food and supplies, a means to cut fuel for cooking, a change of clothes, and the ability to boil water (with the assumption that water could be stored in empty food containers after boiling). If I was ever so desperate to dig this cache up, I would have enough to rely on for a month or two.

Burying and hiding the cache was as simple as placing a few flat rocks over the lid and shoveling some dirt and leaves into the remaining spaces. Nature took care of the rest.
 

The real test of the cache came when I dug it up a little over a year later. In the time since sealing the barrel, I had built a cabin, barn, and other outbuildings on the property, but had left the barrel untouched. With winter approaching, I decided to open it to see how reliable the cache was, and to repurpose the barrel as a mini root cellar. If the barrel was full of water and spoiled supplies, I would discontinue this idea; if everything was good, I would duplicate the cache in other locations.

I was prepared for water and spoilage when I removed the stones and unsealed the lid, but to my pleasant surprise everything was dry and immaculate. Not a drop of water had gotten into the barrel, nor mouse or insect. I was looking at a barrel of supplies as fresh as the day I sealed the lid nearly a year and a half earlier. The cache experiment was a complete success.

Gardening after sixty

By Jackie Clay-Atkinson

Nearly all of us garden in some form or another. After all, isn’t growing our own food one of the tenets of self-reliance? Besides that, it’s fun, fulfilling, and good exercise. Biting into that first sun-ripened tomato, crisp, sweet carrot, or oh-too-juicy melon makes all that planning and work worthwhile instantly. But as we age, some of the work becomes more difficult and we need to find new ways to do the things that make that garden not only possible but more enjoyable, too. Now that I’m over 70 years old, I think it’s safe to claim that I know a few things about this.

Jackie Clay-Atkinson has been gardening her entire life. Now over 70, she has adapted her methods and overcome many of the physical challenges of continuing to garden.
 

Some things about gardening pretty much stay the same, no matter what age. For instance, I will always be found on our shady front porch, cutting green beans, shelling peas, or shucking sweet corn to can. That doesn’t seem a bit like work, even to my body with all its previously broken bones. (Remember, I wasn’t always old!)

But some tasks are getting a bit more difficult, so instead of quitting, I just try to think of ways to make them easier. There is usually a way to accomplish a task without all the strain it used to take.

Hauling loads

I used to just take the wheelbarrow down to the garden full of manure, mulch, or whatever, and then back up the steep hill, full of rocks, weeds, or debris. It seems like that hill has gotten steeper and longer and my bad elbow doesn’t seem to like lifting those heavy wheelbarrow handles any more.

So instead of the wheelbarrow, I find myself using our riding lawn mower and two-wheeled garden trailer, instead. Not only can I haul, sitting down, but the trailer has a dump box so I don’t have to lift heavy debris out of it, either. And my handy trailer also hauls boxes and buckets of feed, wood shavings, and garden produce from our six big gardens, all with me sitting down. Not so shabby!

But the riding lawn mower and trailer won’t fit into some smaller areas, such as when I want to transplant a young fruit tree or a clump of peonies. I’ve found that by using a snow saucer or plastic toboggan in these tighter areas, I can easily slide the unmanageable, heavy item around on the ground with little effort.

Another handy way to move heavy things is by using a two-wheeled moving dolly. These little carts are inexpensive and you can use them to move everything imaginable, from railroad ties to refrigerators. I often use them to move 100 pound sacks of feed around the homestead. I used to be able to not only lift, but carry those sacks quite a distance with ease, but that was three compressed vertebrae and a damaged shoulder ago. Now I just drag them out of the back of our Subaru, slip the moving dolly’s “foot” under the sack, and off to the barn we go.

As I age, I find myself growing more crops on a trellis. This helps eliminate a lot of bending while tending and harvesting crops. Here are some beans growing on a stock panel trellis.
 

I’ve moved tons of landscaping rock, boulders, bales of straw, and railroad ties for raised beds with mine, and it doesn’t show any wear at all.

Gardening up

In the last few years, I’ve found I’m growing more crops on trellises now, instead of in rows or beds on the ground. Reasons for this are pretty much physical. After all, it’s easier to pick pole beans rather than bush beans, and easier to harvest cucumbers hanging from a trellis instead of bending to find them in a bed on the ground. Growing on a trellis also lets you grow more food in a smaller area than when you grow on the ground. It also keeps your vegetables cleaner.

A trellis can be just about anything, but the easiest, strongest, and nicest to handle and pick from are those made of welded livestock panels or “cattle panels.” They are sturdy, not too heavy to handle, easy to cut into shorter lengths with a pair of long-handled bolt cutters, and very easy to attach to steel T posts, driven into the ground every 8 feet or so. I use zip ties for a quick, easy fix, since they’re easy to remove in the fall.

Welded wire “cattle panels” are ideal trellises. They can be attached to T posts with zip ties, are sturdy, won’t sag, and can be reused year after year. They come in 16-foot lengths.
 

On these trellises I grow pole beans, cucumbers, melons, peas, and sugar pod peas. The wind will never blow them down, nor will the weight of the crop cause them to lean or sag. Come fall, you just have to cut them loose, remove the old vines, and lean the panels up against the garden fence. I even use them in the berry patch, making an arbor for the grape vines to climb up. I put two 16-foot panels horizontally, ten feet apart where the rows of grapes are, fastening the panels to steel T posts, then hump four more panels up over the row, placing the ends inside the horizontal panels and tying them together with fence wire (zip ties will eventually photo-degrade and break). This makes a very attractive arbor and keeps the grapes up and easy to pick.

Just like growing vegetables on a trellis, we have entirely switched to caging our tomatoes. For years I just let them sprawl on the mulch in the garden, but the more tomatoes I grew, the more my back complained about all that bending to pick them. So I started staking them up. That was fine, but required a lot of work, bending to tie the vines to the stakes as they grew taller. I tried about every cage known to man and the results were always the same; the tomatoes would get heavy and tall and a strong wind would eventually blow the cages over, even when a wooden stake was driven in to help hold the cage upright.

Tomato cages made from leftover rolls of concrete reinforcing wire are the best we’ve ever used. They keep sprawling tomato plants and their pendulous fruits off the ground and are easy to reach through. By attaching every cage to a T post, they never tip over.
 

Then my husband, Will, began making tomato cages from concrete reinforcing wire. We were given several partial rolls by a friend who just wanted to be rid of it following a construction job on their place. So Will cut lengths so the cages would be about 18 inches in diameter, just folding the wire back on itself to hold the cage together. They are awesome! These cages are easy to pick tomatoes from, as the squares are so large.

We solved the problem of the cages blowing over by pounding a steel T post in next to the tomato plant, then sliding the cage down over both the plant and T post. Now we never have a tomato plant tip over, and I can easily harvest tomatoes without creeping along on the ground.

Bending and kneeling

One of the best things I’ve found to help me harvest such low crops as bush beans is a simple, lightweight plastic seat which fits inside a plastic bucket. A friend gave me one, and now I wouldn’t garden without it. Sure, you can just turn a five gallon bucket upside down and sit on that, but that raised edge sure cuts into you after a few minutes of sitting. This plastic seat is comfortable and you can sit on it for a long time. The bucket and lid are lightweight, waterproof, and you can vary the height of the seat by choosing the right bucket — some are three and a half gallons, others are five gallons, and a few are six and a half gallons. I like the latter, as it’s taller, and therefore easier to sit down on and get up again. I’ve found these seats at local farm and ranch stores, especially during the winter when folks are ice fishing.

Picking fruit and nuts

A couple of years back I fell off our barn roof. Now my husband doesn’t want me to climb up high any more, but we have a nice orchard of fruit trees and in the fall, there are hundreds of apples, plums, cherries, and other fruit to pick. My grandma used to have this handy fruit picker which was like a wire basket with wire claws to pull the fruit off with. I found one, complete with a screw-together pole to make it longer at our local farm store for less than $40, and I’ve used it ever since. When the trees get too tall to use it, we prune the tops so they stay short. The trees are standard trees, meaning they could get 30 feet tall, but with judicious pruning, they grow out instead of up. I can pick safely from the ground with the picking pole.

Tree nuts are harvested off the ground in most cases. I remember many family events in the fall where Mom and Dad would drive way out into the country, down wild dirt roads, looking for walnuts and shag-barked hickory trees. When we’d find one on the side of the road, we’d all hop out and start filling bags. Well, that was fine when I was 16, but now all that stooping, bending, and crawling about is definitely out. However, I still like nuts.

Luckily, someone invented a rolling nut harvester. This is an oval shaped wire basket on a long handle. You just roll it over the ground and the nuts pop in through the wires and stay inside. You can harvest pecans, walnuts, hickory nuts, and more without bending, stooping or crawling on the ground. Many gardening catalogs carry them, and you can find them in many farm and ranch stores. This inexpensive contraption will let you harvest all the nuts you’d ever want in a very short time. It will even pick up fallen fruits such as plums or crab apples.

Tilling and cultivating

We used to till our garden with a big TroyBilt “Horse” rear-tine tiller, but as our gardens got more numerous and we got older, even that easy-to-run tiller took a lot out of us. We decided to buy a tractor-mounted tiller. Yes, it was costly (around $1,400), but now we can till an acre in less than an hour. For those who don’t have such a large garden, consider downsizing your tiller to fit your physical needs. If we kept a smaller garden, I would trade in my big “Horse” for the smaller “Bronco.” It may take longer to till the garden with a smaller tiller, but it weighs much less and turns easier. If you need something bigger than a hand held tiller, but not quite the size of a tractor tiller, you can get a rototiller attachment for most brands of riding lawn mower.

A garden bench at the edge of your garden will ensure that you have a place to take frequent breaks, while a moving dolly makes it easy to transport heavy items.
 

We love our little Mantis tiller. Because it weighs only 20 pounds, it is easy for us seniors to start and handle. But they’re not a sissy machine! I’ve always likened them to a crazed weasel, they dig so furiously. We use them for cultivating around plants, between rows, and even for loosening the soil to dig in fruit trees. I work the tiller around the inside of the hole, then shovel out all the loose dirt. Soon you have a nice big hole for your new tree.

When you have a small garden, you might consider a battery operated tiller. While these tillers are not powerful enough for breaking sod or tilling the spring garden after winter, they are fine for all that cultivating and weeding between plants. They also have the additional benefits of being very lightweight and silent. So they don’t break your back or annoy your neighbors.

Use more mulch!

The older I get, the more mulch I find myself using, not only in our vegetable gardens but in the berry patch and even my extensive flower beds. When I was much younger, I read Ruth Stout’s wonderful book, The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book, introducing generations to deep mulching with organic material such as straw and marsh hay.

We have an acre of main garden by our house and we only weed it by hand once. First we till it completely, then we plant. When the plants are up four or five inches, we till again and weed between the plants with a hoe or by hand. Next we add an 8-inch layer weed-free reed canary grass between the rows and around the plants where appropriate. We won’t have to weed again all summer, except for the occasional pulling of a weak, stray weed here and there.

One caution though — only use weed-free and chemical-free hay or straw. Weed seeds, even hay seeds such as timothy, can make future gardening a nightmare. Some hay crops are treated with herbicides such as Grazon to kill weeds but not the crop. These herbicides remain in the manure from animals who have eaten chemical-sprayed hay and also the hay/straw itself, not only killing weeds but also damaging all the plants in your garden. Be careful and ask the grower about any chemicals sprayed on their crops.

Not only does mulch keep the weeds down but it also helps retain moisture around the plant roots, reducing the need for frequent watering. And it breaks down over time. Our mulch is nearly gone by the time we till in the fall and tills in very easily at that time, increasing the tilth of the soil. Where we used to have sand, gravel, and rocks, we now have nice loose black dirt.

Containers and raised beds

As many folks get older, they begin growing more and more crops in raised beds or containers to reduce the bending and other physical care of the garden. It’s amazing how much food can be grown this way.

A friend of ours actually has no garden soil at all; they live on exposed ledge rock. She and her husband garden in five-gallon buckets with drain holes drilled in the bottom, sitting on platforms all around the outside of their deck. In these buckets, they grow tomatoes, carrots, cabbages, onions, cucumbers, beans, and squash. Another friend grows much of their produce in five gallon buckets lined up along the paved approach to their garage.

Still another friend uses stacks of large tires and cattle watering troughs to garden in. Even if you don’t want tires or stock tanks in your yard, you can still build traditional square or rectangular raised beds of cedar or other rot-resistant wood.

One of my favorite garden helpers is this simple plastic seat which fits into the top of a five-gallon bucket.
 

My husband is making a gardening table for one of our sons who is wheelchair bound, by bolting half of a 55-gallon plastic barrel to a sturdy framework of 2x4s. It will be just high enough for him to access easily from the wheelchair.

Other hand-held tools

One of my big annoyances was the grass which grew up along our raised beds in our house garden and the raised beds in the front yard. We do have a gas-powered string trimmer, but that darned thing is hard for me to start with a bum shoulder, and I hated to ask Will to do that puny job every time the grass grew up too high.

Finally, I bought a cheap, battery-powered string trimmer. I wasn’t expecting it to work that well, but it whacks grass and weeds nicely and I can work for quite a long time before having to recharge it. This trimmer is lightweight, quiet, and easy to use.

One of my nicest garden tools is my Cobrahead hoe. This sharp, oval-shaped hoe is like a flat tooth on a swan-neck, attached to a long handle. I can easily reach and hoe weeds from way under my perennial plants, dig up a dandelion or thistle or make shallow rows to plant carrots.

Planting new seeds can really be a back breaker, but I made myself a handy tool to allow me to precisely place seeds all while standing. I took a three-foot-long piece of 1-inch PVC pipe and attached a small funnel to one end. The small end of the funnel feeds into the pipe. I glued a seed cup to the pipe near the funnel (the cup is just a pop bottle with the top cut off). Now, after making my row with a hoe, I place seed in the cup then just walk slowly down the row, placing the end of the pipe into the furrow and dropping one seed at a time into the funnel. It travels down the tube smoothly, making perfect placement of the seeds possible without bending over at all.

Attitude

I think one thing which keeps older folks from gardening more is simply attitude. You know, the “I’m too old to do that” mentality. Yes, some things get harder as you age; that’s a fact of life. Arthritis, muscle pain, and old (or recent) injuries all take their toll, but when you don’t just give up and quit, the rewards are terrific. Even my Mom was actively gardening from a walker in her early 90s, despite terrible rheumatoid arthritis.

I’m convinced gardening is one of the best forms of exercise going. Just don’t over do things while keeping your body moving and your mind active and happy. No matter what type of gardening you do, there is always some form of stretching, bending, and moving involved. All of these are good for us, but tiring. Put a bench down by the edge of the garden like I do. Work awhile, then go sit down. Repeat several times and it’s amazing how much gets done. Instead of quitting gardening because it has become too hard, try to figure out ways to make it easier.

If parts of gardening are simply too hard no matter what you try, hire the job out to a neighbor. It won’t cost much and will let you continue gardening even longer. Better yet, interest your grandchildren or neighbor children in gardening early on and hire them to help with the heavier jobs. That’s a win-win situation as you’ll be passing down a priceless life skill to a younger generation — a worthy goal for a gardener of any age.

Jackie Clay-Atkinson lives with her husband, Will, on their homestead in northern Minnesota. She has spent a lifetime gardening, raising livestock, preserving food, and developing productive homesteads in Montana and New Mexico in addition to her current location. She has written countless articles and numerous books, some of which can be found on our website, www.self-reliance.com.

 

Little ones on the homestead

By Melissa Souza
 

Everywhere I go around the homestead I have four little ones following close behind me, two of which always have their boots on the wrong feet. Folks are always asking how we get it all done with four homeschooled children. It is true that I never have a stretch of time when children are gone at school, but that only means that I have helpers all of the time. Homesteading with children is a state of mind. If you try to distract them so you can get your work done it will be a constant battle of rushing and leaving tasks unfinished.

We started this homesteading journey for our children. We wanted them to see the great value in living a simple life. It is important that our children know things, and by things I don’t mean electronics. I mean real things like how to process meat, plant a garden, save seeds, and care for the land that takes care of them. As a busy parent that needs to get many things done every day, it is tempting to tell the kids to go play, but we are learning the value in taking the extra time to include each of our children in the daily chores.

 

Each child has a set of jobs that are only their responsibility. We speak to them about how vital that role is, and why it is so important to take that responsibility seriously. My seven year old son is in charge of feeding the chickens, dog, cats, and rabbits. We explained that they eat before he does, because they depend on him. He never forgets to feed any of them, because he sees that they wait anxiously for him every morning. My four year old daughter gathers eggs after breakfast, and she has a special egg collecting apron that is just for her. This makes her feel important, because she is literally bringing breakfast in for our entire family.

My husband and I teach our children to harvest and clean ripe produce from the garden to provide food for our family and our small CSA.
Our daughter and her special egg-gathering apron, which she uses to gather eggs every day.
 

When it’s time to gather firewood, my husband always makes sure to bring our oldest boy along so he can learn how to safely chop wood, and how to stack it so that it dries properly. They have built a firewood shed, rabbit hutches, nesting boxes, a storage shed, and a child-friendly chicken coop together. It would be much quicker for my husband to do these projects on his own, but each new project is an opportunity to teach our children measurements, angles, types of wood, different tools, and hard work.

Planting seeds may take longer with little kids, but the joy they gain from growing food for their family can’t be duplicated any other way.
 

The chicken coop was designed specifically so that our children could manage the hens without our assistance. The food and water delivery systems are designed so that they never have to enter the coop. Eggs are collected from outside, and the back is easy to open so that they can clean out the coop themselves. Our rabbit hutches are similarly designed, and the animals that feed our family have become the responsibility of the kids. This gives them ownership and respect for those animals when it comes to processing day.

They have not gotten into processing the animals for meat yet, but that will come with time. They do watch and ask questions, and we explain the anatomy and steps involved in butchering. We save hides, and they help me tan and stretch the leather. They have learned that we use every part of the animal, and that is how to respect their sacrifice.

Learning to preserve the harvest is another wonderful skill my kids learn on the homestead. We often turn extra cabbage into kimchi.
 

Our favorite time of the year is when we start planning our garden. They get to select special vegetables that they would like to grow that year, and experience success of planting the seeds they helped save from the season before. When we are preparing our garden compost, we talk with them about how our food breaks down and why compost is important to feed our gardens. The kids all get out there every spring with rakes and shovels to help prepare the gardens that will feed them year around.

All four kids help plant seeds, weed, and water through the spring. You could walk around the entire property with our four year old, and she could tell you what each seedling is. I love watching her explain to visitors that the frilly ones are carrots, and the big round leaves are cucumbers, and the tall vines are sweet peas. It takes us longer to get our garden in the ground with so many tiny fingers poking around, but it makes every extra hour worth it when we see how proud they are of the carrots that they grow.

We built our coop to make sure our kids could manage the care and feeding of the hens all by themselves. The feed and water is added from the outside, and the entire back of the coop opens to make it easy to rake out the spoiled bedding into a wheelbarrow.
 

Summer months bring daily garden collections, and they are so excited to bring in large baskets of greens, and even more eager to eat them. We run a small CSA, and when people come to collect their baskets, all four kids take such pride in everything that goes into them. Summertime also brings abundance that we preserve for the fall and winter months. Including the children in the canning process has been one of our best homeschool learning experiences. They learn to read recipes, measure exactly, and tell temperature. We have learned about bacteria, acids, and kitchen safety together, and that is a real world skill that will stay with them.

 

Homesteading with small children is very possible, and in many regards what keeps us going. We live this life for them, so why would we not teach them every aspect of how to live this life in the future? My grandma tells me that this season in life is long days, and short years. I remind myself of that when I am watching my two year old stirring most of the flour out of the bread bowl. At the end of the day our children have dirty feet, and smell like sunshine, and we can almost bet that they have learned something new.

Melissa lives with her husband and children on a suburban homestead in the Pacific northwest. In addition to a garden and eggs, they produce meat chickens and rabbits.