Our Biggest Homesteading Mistakes
We thought we knew what we were doing!Posted Feb 12, 2014
It was a heady feeling developing a homestead with no oversight, no building inspectors, and unfettered freedom. But my indulgence in independent thinking came at some cost, as most of the projects undertaken in our early years on the land were not well thought out. This article is written in hopes that you can avoid some of our mistakes. Here’s what we got wrong.
1. Building too close to trees
We wanted our woodshed close to the house, and there was a level patch of ground ready to build on. So we got busy peeling poles and splitting shakes, and placed large flat stones to set the posts on. The 12’ x 18’ finished shed looked sturdy and pleasing to the eye, nestled among a few small cedar trees a foot or two away on either side. The cedars helped the shed blend in to the natural setting while also providing shade around the splitting block. Perfect!
Fast forward 30 years. The woodshed roof needs new shakes, but the structure is still sound and would be good for many more years, had it not been for the cedars on either side. Both end walls of the shed are now pushed in about 6” by the expanding trunks of the cedars. The pinched frame is starting to distort, and tree roots are lifting one corner. The shed is toast. The trees are magnificent.
Why didn’t I cut the cedars ten years ago? Well, there’re always other projects and repairs to do that seem more important at the time. The trees seem to grow so slowly that you think there’s always time to get around to it. Now the trees are too big to take down without wrecking the shed. The current plan is to leave the trees and rebuild in a different spot.
2. Setting fence posts too shallow, uncharred
In setting my first fence line I wanted to do a good job of it, meaning the longer the fence stands the better. The cedar posts were split from logs, and were over 8’ tall and 10” thick. Clearing the line and digging the post holes was hard work. The ground turned to hardpan at about 2’ down and further digging into the solid clay was tough. So the posts were all set in at 2’ deep. They seemed well set. The finished job looked great.
In a few years, parts of the line began to lean, with the ‘sail effect’ of a picket fence bearing on the posts with each strong wind. A few years after, more posts went down. The remaining posts were rotting at the base and had lost about an inch of wood, enough to make the posts sloppy in their holes. Today, the old posts are propped up with wedges driven in some of the holes, others tied to a log, a fruit tree, whatever. The whole line needs replacing.
We didn’t know about ‘charring’ the in-ground ends of the posts. The other three sides of the garden fence were done later, after we’d learned the technique. All subsequent posts were charred on their lower ends in a small fire; this helps prevent rotting where the posts meet the wet ground. And the newer post holes were dug a foot deeper at 3’, using a steel pry bar to break the hardpan the extra 12”. Those posts are still solid and have many years to go.
3. Letting our fruit trees get out of control
The fruit trees were important, so we got them in the ground right away. They looked healthy and we didn’t notice or care that they were gradually leaning toward the sun. Most years we pruned the trees, but a few years we forgot or were otherwise distracted. It didn’t seem to matter. Each fall we had an abundance to fruit to pick, sort, process, store and eat.
Then the trees started falling over. One went down in an autumn rainstorm, weighted with apples and leaning downhill in sodden ground. Another did the same the following year. Eventually 7 of the original 13 fruit trees were lost as they got bigger, with more weight up top during fruiting season and the center of gravity shifted a few degrees downslope.
The young fruit trees should have been staked, of course, making sure the trunk remained vertical, especially since the ground had a slight southerly slope. More recently, when planting new fruit trees, a level is brought along with the shovel, and stakes are set to hold the sapling a bit to the ‘north’ of level. In the years ahead, gravity and settling will pull the mature tree to what we hope will be right on vertical.
The other mistake was inconsistent annual pruning and fruit thinning. The trees are all semi-dwarf varieties, yet some are nearly 20’ tall. Each year, my pruning was too conservative and gradually the trees have expanded. When this happens, the long branches can break under the weight of the fruit, the fruit is harder to pick when the trees are big, and the bigger trees have more of a shading effect on some garden beds. And if the fruit is not thinned in spring, the tree can over-bear, making those long branches even heavier. My option now is to prune them more radically, but this risks the trees being setback and not producing for the season. It would have been much easier if they had been pruned every year, and cut back further.
4. Gardening too close to trees
The large trees just outside of the garden fence have become aware of the abundance of rich, fertile soil within the fence. They know where the hot spots of nutrition can be found, beneath each of the raised beds, and under the large farm-style compost heap. Sitting on our deck overlooking the garden, we’ve appreciated the lush growth of new branches on several of those perimeter trees. But in more recent years, we finally connected the dots – the lush growth of new branches was fueled by our garden.
Since we prefer “no-till” gardening methods when possible, our beds are not often dug into. Only when we harvest root crops or set large transplants is there any reason to dig deeper into the soil. But installing new raised beds a few years ago gave reason to ‘double-dig’ the beds, and we finally saw what lay beneath – a web of large, vigorous roots which could be traced back in direct line to the parent tree outside the garden fence.
Tree roots do not necessarily remain within the confines of the tree’s ‘drip-line’. In two areas of our garden, the roots have travelled 20’ – 30’ to reach the rich pocket of nutrients. Our strategy is twofold – dig up the roots and yank them out where possible, and install a root barrier by digging a narrow trench down to hardpan, cutting any and all roots, and sliding heavy-duty HDPE plastic sheets on edge before backfilling the trench.
5. Gardening in heavy soil
It’s a real beginner’s mistake, and we remained beginners for a long time. Year after year we dug our beds and chopped the clumps (and far too many worms) with a hoe. Then the precious compost was added, with lime and rock phosphate, and all topped up with seaweed or other available mulch. Only the best seedlings were set out in the beds, and care given to their every need through the spring months. But year after year the size and vigor of the varied crops was modest, with relatively small yield at harvest.
Eventually we learned how gardening is as much about the soil as the plantings. And our soil was too dense and heavy. Our neighbors, with a very productive garden, used lots of peat to lighten their soil which enables roots to spread easily to source available nutrients while supporting larger plants with more vegetative growth. We resisted buying peat because it’s a limited resource, heavy (we have to carry things up a hill), and costly to bring in.
Today we lighten the soil in garden beds by using some peat, by growing ‘green manure’ crops in regular rotation and by working in dry leaves, sawdust and forest duff which have some of the properties of peat. I can poke a finger all the way into the soil with ease. And the results were immediate – our garden is more productive, the vigorous plants block out most weeds and discourage insect pests. Lighter soil has made all the difference!
In hindsight these mistakes seem pretty obvious!