Try this at home: 5 inspiring books for getting started with off-grid and homestead living

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Heavy, real paper books are something I have to think twice about packing up and lugging along my transatlantic journey from the USA to Tanzania. This means that all the books that have made it over here with me are well-vetted, well-loved, and, in our off-grid life, indispensable because of their practical and non-battery-dependent content.

In this post I’d like to share the top books from a few different homemaking- and homesteading-type categories that have made the journey with me and which I refer to time and again.


1. Making It: Radical Home Ec for a Post-Consumer World
by Kelly Coyne & Erik Knutsen

I was gifted this book by friends in Pittsburgh, and it’s a great “gateway” guide for those interested in DIY all-natural and homemade solutions for everyday life. The book has great projects written up by a witty and ingenious couple devoted to finding ways to do things themselves (i.e. do things better). It features projects large and small, which are scaled so that wherever you are in the world or on the DIY spectrum, you’re guaranteed to be able to make some positive changes and / or try one of their many doable projects, like vermiculture or growing microgreens. Towards the larger and more-involved projects are chicken coop construction and what Coyne and Knutsen refer to as “backwards beekeeping”; both are sections that inspire the interested reader to do further research elsewhere.

encyclopedia of country living

2. The Encyclopedia of Country Living: The Original Manual for Living off the Land & Doing It Yourself
by Carla Emery

Originally titled “Old Fashioned Recipe Book,” this book has inspired hundreds of thousands of people since the early 1970s. I found a copy for myself at a used book sale a few years ago, which I bought mostly for sentimental reasons at the time (my mom has her own beat-up copy). Little did I know how much helpful information I would find inside. Reading the introduction and all of Emery’s personal experiences intermixed with her practical and down-to-earth guidance is truly eye-opening and sometimes jaw-dropping.

the new laurel's kitchen

2. The New Laurel’s Kitchen
by Laurel Robertson, Carol L. Flinders, & Brian Ruppenthal

Whether or not you’re a vegetarian, this updated version of “Laurel’s Kitchen” is an essential cookbook because of its can-do tone and its devotion and faith in proper nutrition and its place in family life. It has the perfect mix of warm and friendly guidance through its descriptions of cooking and baking techniques, recipes, and nutritional advice. For data-oriented people like me, it’s also appealing for its nutritional tables of all of the foodstuffs used in its recipes. This book saves you the hassle and time drain of endlessly googling whole-food recipes and nutrition facts for semi-obscure ingredients, (I speak from experience on this). Put your smartphone aside and let Laurel guide you – you’ll be glad you did!

how to grow more vegetables

4. How to Grow More Vegetables (and Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains, and Other Crops) Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine
by John Jeavons

Jeavons’ gardening methods are taught to and promoted by Peace Corps volunteers, which goes to show how proven his methods are in improving soil and garden production all over the world and with limited resources. Jeavons’ focus is on soil health: good soil will grow healthy and productive crops. This book has in-depth guidance on composting, soil amendment, and garden bed preparation. Its planting advice uses French intensive gardening methods, which maximize usage of the surface area of a garden bed more so than other popular methods like square foot gardening or planting in rows. Again, for data-oriented people like me, this book has fantastic appendices chock-full of growth and nutritional data for almost every imaginable crop you’d like to plant in your garden or on your farm.

introduction to animal science

5. Introduction to Animal Science
by W. Stephen Damron

For those who have little or no experience in keeping livestock, this textbook can answer many basic questions and provide you with a good biological background as you expand your knowledge further. (I linked to the 2012 edition because used copies of that next-to-most-recent edition are pretty inexpensive on Amazon.) This book’s animal nutrition and feeding, sheep and goat, and rabbit sections are particularly informative. For those interested in ration balancing and mixing their own animal feed, this is a good place to start. It also has helpful charts for calculating adjusted lamb and kid weight gains and good information on rabbit housing needs. This is another book that has given me accurate information without me making endless Google searches for the exact same information!

What are some of your favorite books you refer to again and again? I’d love to hear.


Five dollar compost bin

Every day, I pile kitchen scraps and farm waste in the same spot. But there is no pile. Each time I take the compost out to the compost heap, the chickens make short work of spreading it around, after which it dries out and doesn’t actually compost at all. As compost is a very important part of improving soil and gardening, I clearly had to address the situation sooner or later.

So today I addressed the situation. Most compost container designs are predominantly wooden or plastic, neither of which really work in my situation – wood is expensive and plastic deteriorates fast in this equatorial sun. Wire mesh seemed like a good option, so I based this compost container off of a design I saw in John Jeavons’ book “How to Grow More Vegetables.”

This container is great because it is cheap to make and it is easily movable, making turning a compost pile easy: once it fills, you can remove the wire, set it up again nearby, and turn the pile into the new location.

compost 2

What you need:

  • About 3 meters (or yards) of chicken wire or other metal mesh, with a width of 1 meter/ yard
  • 5 pieces of wood (1x2s would work well; I used log-type wood I had), length of 1 meter or yard (however wide the mesh is)
  • Small (2-inch) finishing-type nails; they should be easy to bend
  • 2 metal latches (the kind with the swinging hook and eye)
  • Hammer
  • Saw (if you need to cut the wood to size)

How to put it together:

  • Take each piece of wood and hammer several nails in a line down one side (the more the better, really; I probably didn’t use enough). Leave about an inch of each nail sticking out.
  • Start with one end of the wire mesh and line the nails of one piece of wood up to pass through the mesh. I then curled the mesh around the wood and passed the nails through again.

compost 3

compost 4

  • Bend the nails with your hammer and hammer them down flat. They should face both up and down, not all in the same direction, so the wire doesn’t slip out if the nails start to lift up.

compost 5

  • Lay the length of mesh flat and repeat the above steps on the other end. If the mesh has been rolled up, I put the wood on the inside of the curve, because the wood will be standing inside the circular structure once finished.
  • Eyeball where the halfway point and the quarters of the mesh are, and secure the pieces of wood on the inside of the mesh’s curve. Again, make the nails face in different directions, not all one way.
  • Join up the end pieces and screw in the eye screws for the latch. If the wood is hard, ding a starter hole with an extra nail to get the screw to go in.

compost 6

(Above: these are the hooks and eyes I ended up using because I couldn’t find the swinging-hook kind anywhere. The kind with the movable hook is ideal because it’s easier to open and close the container.)

  • Decide where you’re going to set up the compost pile (if you haven’t already!) Clear the area from weeds and dig up the soil a little with a hoe or shovel.

compost 7

(Above: where my old compost pile supposedly was. Don’t see it? Neither do I. Darn chickens.)

  • Set up the mesh container. It may be a little unsteady until it gets partially filled, like mine was. If this is a concern, you can brace the top with sticks or lengths of wood crosswise in the inside if you like.

compost 8

  • I stood inside the mesh circle and straightened out the mesh with my foot, that worked pretty well, as it had been folded.
  • Start filling your new compost container!

compost 9

Some tips for composting:

  • 1 cubic meter (or roughly 1 cubic yard) is the ideal size for a compost pile.  A pile smaller than that cannot generate enough heat to decompose properly; larger and it may get too hot, or there is not enough surface area for it to respire properly.
  • When adding anything that might attract flies, cover it with a layer of finished compost or garden soil that it is not exposed. This also helps to conserve moisture.
  • Your compost pile may get hot, but don’t count on it to kill insect pests, microbes that cause plant diseases, or noxious weeds (such as Bermuda grass or wild morning glories). For those kinds of wastes, you can burn them in a pit and then compost their ashes, which do have beneficial minerals and nutrients.

Some other things not to compost:

  • Leaves or cuttings from plants that have antimicrobial properties, such as eucalyptus or neem
  • Feces from carnivorous animals like dogs and cats
  • Meat and cooking oil (small amounts of oil or cooked meat is ok)
  • Glossy paper or chemically-treated wood

compost 10

That was pretty easy, wasn’t it?

What style of compost bin do you use? What techniques do you use for turning and finishing your compost?

Ugly, cheap, low-water-use produce: the bag garden

About a week ago, as I was collecting wild amaranth for my post on foraging, my eleven-year-old neighbor boy showed up. “You mean, you don’t have any matembele?” He asked me, when he saw what he thought was my desperation for greens to cook.

Matembele is a type of sweet potato that is grown here. It is grown exclusively for its leaves, which are narrower and tastier than those of sweet potatoes grown for tubers. “Don’t worry, I’ll bring you some cuttings,” he told me. So a few days later, I had matembele cuttings, but no good place to grow them.

Container gardening is a great idea in theory, but the expense of pots and other containers may prove inconvenient, maybe even prohibitive, to some people who would benefit from having fresh vegetables growing in a small space. Here in Tanzania, buying big clay pots or large plastic containers to plant in would get pretty expensive, but nylon bags, which are commonly used for grain and legume storage, are pretty cheap – about 25 cents a bag.

During our pre-service training for Peace Corps, we were taught how to make bag gardens, which are a useful tool for improving household and child nutrition. Being watered with just a gallon or two of greywater per day from rinsing dishes or other household chores, bag gardens are ideal for growing greens and vegetables right outside your door, even in the dry season.

Here’s how to make one.

Things you need:

  • large nylon or burlap bag
  • gravel
  • garden soil, mixed with finished compost if available
  • a tube with about a 6″ diameter. A large tin can with both top and bottom removed works well.
  • bucket
  • shovel
  • small hand rake (optional)
  • knife/ utility knife
  • container-friendly vegetable seeds and/or cuttings
  • water (less than 10 gallons at the start should be enough)
  • 3 or 4 sticks or stakes to support the bag garden

Start out by deciding on a good site to build your bag garden, because once you fill the bag with soil, it will be very difficult to move again! I set mine up on the northwestern corner of our house, which gets very good sun. (We are in the southern hemisphere, so the north side is the sunny side.)

bag 2

Set the bag in its designated location and put a few inches’ worth of gravel in the bottom of the bag. Shake the bag so that this foundation is even and sturdy against the ground.

bag 3

Place the tin in the center of the bag, on the gravel foundation. Fill the tin with gravel, and fill the bag outside of the tin with garden soil/ compost. You are basically making a porous core of gravel at the center of the bag garden, for ease of watering and to help ensure the soil gets evenly moist.

Once the gravel in the tin and the soil in the bag are at the same level, lift the tin up, fill it with gravel, add soil in the bag, and repeat until the bag is filled. You can leave a few inches at the top to cuff/ turn down the bag to make the top sturdier.

bag 4

*Please don’t do what I did, which was to use a long plastic pipe as the core tube. I filled it with gravel, then the rest of the bag with soil, thinking I would be able to pull it out easily… well, I was wrong! After five or ten minutes of huffing and puffing and even wrapping a rubber strip around the tube to get a better grip, I finally hefted it out. So to avoid a struggle… just use a tin. I promise it’ll be easier!

Use sticks or stakes driven into the ground to support the finished bag garden. There are none in these pictures because mine is leaning against the house, but I will add two or three stakes to make sure it doesn’t fall forward.

After the bag is filled, water it through the gravel core in the center. It may take several gallons to get the soil evenly moist. I left mine overnight so that the water could absorb well before planting. (Okay, I planned to get the whole thing done in one evening, but the sun set and I still wasn’t done!)

Take a utility knife or razor and cut horizontal or slightly diagonal slits in the bag. Don’t make them too long or too close together, or you may have a blow-out situation. Plant a few seeds or cuttings in each slit. I planted the sweet potato cuttings as well as bush-type garden bean seeds in the sides, and broadcast spinach seeds on the top.

bag 6

You might call it the world’s ugliest container garden; I call it not having to buy greens during the dry season. We will see how this bag garden goes.

What are your favorite cheap containers to use for gardening? What techniques do you use to conserve and reuse water in the garden?