Homesteading and self-sufficiency resources (without the bloodshed)
June 19, 2015 8:35 AM   Subscribe

I have become interested in self-sufficiency lately, especially the ability to feed my family from what I grow or produce myself, if not permanently, at least for an extended period of time should the necessity arise. I suppose it is similar to homesteading but I have zero interest in livestock (especially the slaughtering), so maybe it is closer to Depression era survival skills..?

I have long been interested in growing vegetables but only now have I actually attempted it. This spring I have started my own square foot garden (as well as a fair number of container plantings as well) and so far it is great fun and growing well. I am really interested in getting to the point where the food I grow could feed my family (2 adults, one kid) but I appreciate I am a ways off from that.

I'm pretty much coming at this with no existing knowledge or expertise but because I am coming at this with zero experience or knowledge, I feel like there are things I don't know I don't know. For example, I know I don't know how to can/preserve (yet), but there are probably skills and things I can do that I don't even know exist.

I am looking for more resources/blogs/podcasts/youtubers/books on this type of information, with particular interest in:
- growing food (esp. using square foot gardening)[ NOTE: I live in Atlantic Canada in a hardiness zone of 4b/5a]
- storing/preserving food (canning, preserving, pickling, etc). After having lost all the food in our fridge multiple times following prolonged power outages this has become VERY appealing.
- other uses for the things I am growing that I maybe wouldn't have thought of (for example, it never occurred to me to make lavender essential oil from the lavender I grow)
- practical frugality/survival type skills that would keep a household going on as little money as possible (ie. I might be able to weave my own fabric, but it isn't practical.)
- very high level "off the grid" type things (the frequency and duration of our power outages makes this appealing)

(For what its worth, I'm not wearing a tinfoil hat, I don't expect the world to end, nor do I expect us to get to the point where living this way would be necessary. This is primarily out of interest and about challenging myself to learn new skills. )
posted by PuppetMcSockerson to Home & Garden (27 answers total) 66 users marked this as a favorite
How much land available for gardening do you have? How much storage do you have for canned goods?
posted by Aranquis at 8:42 AM on June 19, 2015

Gardening When It Counts, Steve Solomon. (Recommendation via Ursula Vernon in KUEC ep. 187.)

Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, Toby Hemenway. Same source as above.
posted by sourcequench at 8:42 AM on June 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

On the canning and food preservation front, there are a number of blogs out there. Some of them (many of them) have questionable advice from a food safety perspective. As such, I would suggest a book: The most recent edition of Putting Food By, which covers all food preservation measures and is as conservative (and in a few cases more conservative) than the government guidelines. Includes canning, drying, freezing, foods for gifting, and more.

It's not fancy and it doesn't have pretty pictures, but it also doesn't have questionable canning advice as long as you get the current edition. Highly recommended.

Also, your area's organic gardening and farming association may put on events. In our area it's The Common Ground Fair, and includes a ton of resources and information about this kind of thing.
posted by pie ninja at 8:50 AM on June 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

Mother Earth News
posted by TWinbrook8 at 8:54 AM on June 19, 2015 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: How much land available for gardening do you have?
We have an almost 3 acre lot, but the majority of that is forested, but my husband has cleared an area for me that gets good light etc. and has been excellent. Right now it is only 15 square feet but could be made to be double that without much difficulty. The IS an issue around soil quality (VERY rocky, hard packed clay, etc), so raised beds/containers are necessary.

How much storage do you have for canned goods?
Basically unlimited. We have a large crawl space under out house, one corner of which my husband uses as a wine cellar. The rest can be used for food storage, so maybe 600 square feet?
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 8:57 AM on June 19, 2015

Your local Extension service would have the best information for your location. I also recommend the Sunset Garden book.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:03 AM on June 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yeah, seconding Mother Earth News. The magazine's available most anyplace, and they've got a good online presence to boot. Most recent issue featured a look a guy with a a half-acre homestead - all of his favorite tools and whatnot.

Livestock need not be bloody - you might consider keeping a small poultry laying flock for insect control, eggs, and manure which can be composted and used to amend your raised beds. For getting started, the Dummies book is pretty good as is the Storey Guide. The folks at are also great.
posted by jquinby at 9:04 AM on June 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Ignore the firearms:'s Homestead, Farm & Garden board is jam-packed with the information you're looking for, along with a lot of information you don't yet know that you need. Here's the perma-pinned thread on storing food in buckets and #10 cans.

I do a lot of what you'd like to learn. Please feel free to MeMail me.
posted by MonkeyToes at 9:06 AM on June 19, 2015 [7 favorites]

You might consider keeping some bees. It's much, much easier than keeping livestock, and aside from the honey, you could get a small amount of wax, and even pollen if you get a pollen trap. Plus it will increase the yields of any bee-pollinated crops you plant. Oh, and jarred honey lasts LITERALLY forever, as in they found some in the pyramids that was still perfectly edible.

(It is my theoretical post-apocalypse plan.)
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:07 AM on June 19, 2015 [5 favorites]

There are two books you should read: How to Cook a Wolf and Animal, Vegetable, Mineral.

The first is a delightful collection of essays about how to survive eating-wise when the wolf is at the door, originally published during WWII. The second is an account of Barbara Kingsolver's attempt to feed her family entirely from food produced on their farm for a year.

Canning is fun and not that difficult, especially if you invest in the basic tools - a large enough pot with a rack for cans, jar tongs, wide-mouthed funnel. Start with a couple batches of jam to get the idea and then move up if you enjoy. There are many excellent online resources about canning safely. At a certain point you would want to get a pressure cooker so you can preserve a bigger variety of items.

You can also preserve vegetables thru refrigerator pickling quite easily.

Knitting or crochet can be a relaxing hobby that produces practical, useful items to replace what you would otherwise buy.

If you decide you might want to try animals after all, you don't need to eat them - you can have chickens for eggs and goats for milk. You can make your own yogurt and cheese!

Speaking of power outages - which is a total bummer - consider trying to create a replacement for the grid. My friends in snowstorm areas have generators on hand - how about a solar panel system? Home batteries should be much cheaper in ten years.

And finally I'd look at your disaster preparedness as part of this plan. Do you have a well-stocked first aid kit? This isn't your traditional self-sufficiency but you'd be mighty glad of it if you got cut off for a few days.
posted by bq at 9:07 AM on June 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

Take it from someone with 30+ years of homesteading experience, Lloyd Kahn (you can see a video of his homestead here): "Self-sufficiency is a goal you'll always be working toward, and you'll never get there." Even partial self-sufficiency is very hard work, and requires a lot of time, experience, resources, and luck.

That said, this is no reason not to try to become partially self-sufficient, to reduce your reliance on bought goods, and to build or improve the social networks that will help you to live farther outside the cash economy. Even partial self/community-sufficiency makes your lifestyle more stable and sustainable, and is tremendously rewarding.

We are working on this slowly, as we can, in an urban setting. A few resources we have found helpful:

Abigail Gehring: Back to Basics: A Complete Guide to Traditional Skills
John Kallas: Edible Wild Plants
Sandor Katz: Wild Fermentation
Vic Sussman: Easy Composting
Time-Life: How Things Work in Your Home
Samuel Thayer: The Forager's Harvest

Seconding Gardening When It Counts.
posted by ryanshepard at 9:12 AM on June 19, 2015 [8 favorites]

More thoughts: there's a good book about saving seeds called 'Seed to Seed'. I know people who make their own yarn from fiber and it seems quite fun. Simple sewing skills can be super useful. Whittling would let you make your own cooking spoons with a minimal investment in time. Basket weaving will get you baskets and straw hats. Your location is probably suitable for apple trees. Many fruits and vegetables can be dried for preservation.
posted by bq at 9:14 AM on June 19, 2015

On food preservation, the best solid advice online IMO comes from The National Center for Home Food Preservation at the University of Georgia, USA. I'm also a fan of the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving (get the most recent edition, it has updated science and very nice recipes for all sorts of jams, chutneys, salsa, and a short chapter with templates for pressure canning meats and vegetables. Some of the more interesting recipes call for ingredients you can't get locally (e.g. canned pineapple) but there are plenty using just things you could grow yourself.

You might be interested in the information put out by Northwest Edibles, they're in a different climate but don't let that fool you, the place is rich with interesting discussion and tips on all sorts of related topics.

Another thing I don't see on your list: water conservation. There are many, many plans for greywater recycling systems from simple to complex out there, what you'll be able to do depends on your budget, interest, local authorities, and the like. Just changing your water habits can reduce your dependency on the grid quite a lot. Check out the information at Greywater Action, I think they have webinars.

(I know you asked about media, but I also think it's worth mentioning that there are likely people in your area doing the same kind of thing. I don't know where you live, but there are old-timers in rural areas and activists in urban areas--it might be worth finding the people in your area who have this know-how and can teach you in person. And there are places where you can't even hang your laundry, and then there are places where you can slaughter your own pigs in the backyard, and everything in between. It's helpful to figure out what kind of place you live in before you start hatching big plans to redo your property. Sometimes big plans mean you might have to move, or volunteer for the local committee.)
posted by epanalepsis at 9:45 AM on June 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

On books, look for ones that are put out by Chelsea Green Publishing. They're a far-left press based in Vermont which specifically publishes titles on sustainability, they even have section on their website for titles about "Transition, Homesteading, and Community Resilience."
posted by epanalepsis at 9:50 AM on June 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

You'll have some climate applicability issues, but for inspiration and thought, the Foxfire series about Southern Appalachian traditions is a good read. They do get into livestock management, but it's very much about living self-sufficiently. and "old ways" of doing things.

Contrary to some advice in this thread: do not do backyard chickens if you are not okay with slaughtering them or proper humane euthanasia methods for poultry, or generally dealing hands-on with chicken distress, pain, and death. Even if you decide to keep all your "retired" hens as pets, you will almost certainly deal with sick chickens, and chickens that got wounded by very smart predators, and chickens that are NOT NICE to each other and wound each other establishing the pecking order.
posted by Naamah at 9:56 AM on June 19, 2015 [4 favorites]

There are a couple of nice British shows I like to watch on youtube about gardening for food. Fork to Fork is a six episode series with Monty Don, and The Edible Garden with Alys Fowler is also fun.
posted by feste at 10:10 AM on June 19, 2015

You might also want to look into the book series put out by the Foxfire project. It was a project started back in the 1960s to capture southern appalachian ways of life, and is full of all kinds of practical knowledge useful for anyone interested in self-sufficiency and homesteading.
posted by Pliskie at 10:35 AM on June 19, 2015

Fedco Seeds is a co-op company in Maine that sells cold-hardy seeds, fruit trees, seed potatoes, etc. They have lots of good info on their site too.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:49 AM on June 19, 2015 [4 favorites]

Small batch canning. I found this a good place to start as smaller batches weren't as intimidating, once I built confidence I could increase volume.

NW Edible Life has already been recommended but is another good one. She has a good website & is coming out with a book soon.

Ask at your local garden centre for advice on fruit & nut trees, berries etc. The first thing I'd do if I had your amount of land is start an orchard & berry patch. They take a year or 2 to establish but are an easy source of food.

The gardenweb forums are really a great place to ask questions or just read all the good advice.
posted by wwax at 10:50 AM on June 19, 2015

Fedco Seeds is a co-op company in Maine that sells cold-hardy seeds, fruit trees, seed potatoes, etc. They have lots of good info on their site too.

Fedco is a fantastic company and has been pretty much the only place I've bought seeds since I discovered them in 2001 or 2002. They don't have the voluminous selection of some seed houses, but they more than make up for this in quality--at least for folks in a similar climate/part of the country (e.g. the northeast and some of the upper midwest in the US), their varieties just work and can pretty much be bought sight unseen.

Also, if you're within a day or so of Waterville, ME, you can collect your order at the yearly Tree Sale, which is fun and also good way to pick out some healthy, reasonably-priced food-producing trees which stand a good chance of thriving in your part of the world. I do notice that the tree sale was in May this year, which may be too late to start long season seeds indoors, depending on where you live, and I don't have a clue about driving fruit trees across the border, but IMO it's worth investigating. They do ship seeds to Canada, at the very least.
posted by pullayup at 11:09 AM on June 19, 2015

There's canning but you should also look into fermenting. Sandor Katz's Wild Fermentation is a great start. Preservation, baking, brewing...
posted by jeweled accumulation at 11:39 AM on June 19, 2015

One of the best ways to learn is to do - find a local organic farmer in the area and volunteer/work for them a bit. Ask around at the farmers market, extension office, organic growers association, or ATTRA internship listings (or WWOOF or

I took a permaculture class a while ago, and it was really fun. The Toby Hemingway book is really good (plus, he is super nice).

You might like the River Cottage series :), especially the earlier seasons.
posted by jrobin276 at 12:42 PM on June 19, 2015

Check out The Urban Homestead. They do what it sounds like you want to do, with a garden that is only 1/10 an acre.
posted by Kangaroo at 12:44 PM on June 19, 2015

The Complete Book Of Self Sufficiency is legendary amongst smallholders in the UK. It's got a LOT of detail about managing all aspects of the garden, from planting seeds to dealing with livestock.

The Good Life is a TV show about a couple who try to do what you're trying to do. It's a comedy, and obviously not 100% realistic - in one episode they make homemade crackers for Christmas, and add jokes like "the Ooh-Aah bird is so called because it lays square eggs" - but it's enjoyable nonetheless.

There's a lot of useful information to be found by googling the word "prepper". There's a HUGE amount of nonsense and downright dangerous stuff too, but looking for things like a prepper's guide to gardening might get you some good results. It can be a weird rabbit hole to go down, though.

Growing food:

There's two things to think about - you need to grow food that you will eat AND that will grow in your area. Potatoes, for example, will grow in a plastic bag, in the zone you're in. They'll also help break up your soil. There's not much point growing crops that you can buy really cheaply or that you don't like. There is value in growing a caloric staple - think rice, potatoes, wheat, corn, etc. Runner beans offer the highest value of return for the amount of space they take up, because they grow up rather than out.

Preserving food:

As you've realised, anything that relies on an external power source can fail. Freezers are fantastic things, but you generally lose a lot when they thaw. Dehydrated food needs no external power while in storage. It just needs somewhere cool and dry. That said, I've been looking into fridges recently that can run on gas, mains electric and 12v electric, like you have in your car or that come from a solar panel.
posted by Solomon at 3:05 PM on June 19, 2015

In re. other uses for things you can grow: barter. If you have an abundance of X but don't produce your own Y, look for the Y producer and ask if s/he wants to barter for your X. Fresh eggs are not hard to come by in some circles if you have something to swap. You can also offer to take a respectable quantity of somebody's Z harvest in exchange for a value add -- look in particular for somebody with a fruit surplus; you harvest, you return with a % of the harvest rendered into jam or cordial or some such. My favourite barter folk are the skilled homebrewers!

Don't overlook the goodwill that comes from giving away bundles of assorted fresh herbs -- you can use stuff like that to boost a tip (I am not suggesting replacing any % of your normal tip!) to service providers and the like.

Get a dehydrator -- don't spend too much, try and find a good used one -- and dry stuff.

Check out preservatives. This ruffles a lot of feathers, but. Buy hummus from the store, and you have hummus in the fridge for weeks if it happens to sit there. Make hummus, meh, you've got a week. Add a tiny pinch of sodium benzoate to your homemade hummus, and hey presto! Store-bought shelf life.

Cost out everything -- potatoes are easy to grow, but potatoes are also very cheap on sale. My family has been making pesto for years and years with home-grown basil harvests; Costco's Kirkland brand pesto is pretty much a wash, cost-wise, and the quality is certainly comparable (heresy to pesto aficionados, I'm sure, but the Costco stuff is very good). If you are doing this for survival rather than for a lark, beware of blogs written by people who are doing it for a lark. Factor in your own time to cost calculations, too.

In re. practical frugality: get the "The Tightwad Gazette" books. I also really like Charles Long's "How to Survive Without a Salary." (I have also greatly enjoyed the Foxfire series, though it isn't quite as practical for the novice/non-very-rural.) "Putting Food By," the Ball Blue Book, and "Will it Freeze," etc, etc, are all much more reliable than most web info. It is worth investing in well-regarded, edited books for those sorts of things -- there is a lot of awful food preservation advice in the blogosphere. Conversely, 1950s freezer manuals are a treasure trove of advice on things you never would have thought to freeze... In re. power outages, can you get a generator?

You can broaden your "I make this myself now instead of buying it at the store" circles to include non-edibles. Soap is a timewaster; soap is very cheap to buy. But there are other hacks. I bought the appropriate type of aluminum powder on-line this year, and will never buy antiperspirant from a store again -- turns out I needed a pretty low % of active ingredient, and that plus coconut oil and baking soda (and other this and that -- recipes for deodorants abound on-line, and just coconut oil + baking soda has sky-high reviews on, interestingly). Again, do the math before investing in ingredients, and factor in your time. It isn't worth it to me to make my own shampoo, but it is worth it to me to make my own skin creams with active ingredients -- everything from salicylic acid to retinol is easily found for sale on-line. (Scales for tiny quantities of ingredients are cheap on eBay and, presumably thanks to drug dealers and molecular gastronomy enthusiasts.)

(Feel free to message me if you want more info on anything I mentioned!)
posted by kmennie at 3:55 PM on June 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

Thirding The Mother Earth News, with the suggestion that you purchase the complete archives on USB.

I used to read the magazine faithfully during my teens and twenties, and as a consequence I have a head full of knowledge about how to raise most any animal or vegetable, how to repair small motors, chop and store wood for the winter, preserve most any kind of food, build fences, etc., etc., etc. The reason I suggest getting the archives is because the magazine changed ownership at some point and is not nearly as "back to the land" now as it was in the 70's and 80's. Nowadays it's more aimed at people who have hobby farms.

I would offer to send you my back issues, but I treasure them dearly. But yeah, TMEN is what you want.

Now, if you *really* want to go off grid, you need a copy of Living on the Earth, by Alicia Bay Laurel. This is the ultimate hippie guide that tells you how to survive with nothing more than a sarong and a beat up VW bus. How to make tea from weeds, how to make menstrual pads from leaves, how to worship the sun, how to grow marijuana from seeds. In all seriousness, though, there's a lot of useful information in there. The Amazon reviews go into even more detail about the book.
posted by MexicanYenta at 7:55 AM on June 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Possibly you might like Root Simple, a blog with podcasts by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen - they also have two books. Their blurb:
Root Simple is about back to basics, DIY living, encompassing homegrown vegetables, chickens, herbs, hooch, bicycles, cultural alchemy, and common sense. We're always learning, figuring stuff out, taking advantage of the enormous smarts of our friends and our on-line community, and trying to give some of that back in turn. Root Simple is a gathering place for everyone. Welcome.
The Down to Earth blog gets repetitive once you've been reading it a while, but has some good stuff and excellent links, and is a nice insight into Australian frugality and suburban homesteading (and growing season!).

No longer posting but it was good while it lasted: Apron Stringz - some kid/parenting stuff as well, some stuff about gardening and chickens in Alaska as well as New Orleans, general self-sufficiency and self-reflection and a rollicking good read. Also good links/blogroll.

Novella Carpenter at Ghost Town Farm is good, and has books that are also good, more for urban homesteading, but girl got goats. And chickens and bees and fruit and veg and again, a really good read. Much less active now, but reading back through archives is good, and again, the books are good.
posted by you must supply a verb at 2:21 PM on June 21, 2015

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