Posts Tagged how-to

Your Complete Guide to Dehydrating Food

Your Complete Guide to Dehydrating Food

I wanted to do a post about dehydrating food—a topic several readers have asked about regarding food preservation and storage—but one problem, I’ve never dehydrated food before!

Undaunted, I decided the best way to teach was to learn about it myself. So I interviewed my pal Jennifer who’s an expert at the process of food dehydration and made this great video to share. Unfortunately, when I got home, I discovered the video was garbled, so instead, I went through my notes and created a step-by-step guide and getting started video for you guys. (Check out my video on food dehydrating below…)

 

Dehydrating food is a great way to preserve food and enjoy it for weeks and even months. To dehydrate foods, they’re simply heated at a low temperature with plenty of air circulation. Using a professional dehydrator is an easier method but you can also dry food in the oven, as I’ll explain.

When it comes to food preservation, I think a lot of people immediately bring up canning. I’ll break down and compare the two methods below, but when you weigh the equipment and cost, dehydrating is a cheaper, easier way, especially for those starting out.

Are you ready to get started? Here’s what you need to know about dehydrating food!

Dehydrating vs. Canning

The aspect of dehydrating that appeals to most homesteaders is the simplicity. Both canning and dehydrating have their strengths, but when it comes to dehydrating, less equipment is required (and it’s a simpler process.) Canning, as you will learn from our video is often a more involved process. While canning gives you a longer shelf-life (1-2 years), there’s a greater risk of serious issues like botulism.

For beginners, here’s the breakdown.

Cost

A food dehydrator is hardly pricier than the initial investment of canning. Most food basic dehydrators start at $40 and some are priced much higher. For fruits and veggies, a simple model should work. You can also dehydrate in your oven but it’s a less exacting process. (Some people even dehydrate food in their car—but let’s leave that to the pros!) In an oven it also takes a long time, during which you’re stuck at home. A food dehydrator requires less supervision.

bannana chips low cost

For newbies using a dehydrator is often the way to go. It does require electricity, so if you’re off the grid, that’s also a consideration. Fortunately most dehydrators don’t require a lot of energy. For a breakdown on dehydrator electricity usage check out this chart. Aside from your food dehydrator, you need knife and a cutting board.

Canning on the other hand requires more gear (depending on your method). If you use the water bath method, you’re looking at an investment in the pot, the jars, lids and tongs. A pressure canner on the other hand costs between $60-$300. So canning ends up being almost the same, if not higher cost than dehydration.

Food Safety

Again, canning and food dehydration are both safe methods of preservation if done correctly. With dehydration you’re removing 90-95% of the water content of food, making it an unwelcoming environment for bacteria and mold. With canning, food is heated to a bacteria-killing temperature and the sterile food is sealed in jars using heat and pressure.

With both processes, you need to follow proper procedures and use common sense. The benefit of canning is you know a jar is sealed by listening for the telltale “pop.” That said, when canning goes bad, it goes really bad (like food poisoning bad). Yes, everyone has a story of their grandparents eating canned food over a decade old, but don’t risk it. Canned food is good for 1-2 years, but you must use an exact, proper method.

food saver bags holding dehydrated fruit

With food dehydration, you check for doneness simply by testing the food. With most fruits and vegetables, they will feel completely dry to the touch. When your food feels dry it’s ready to store for a few weeks or for months in a FoodSaver bag or container. If you’re making jerky on the other hand, you don’t want to play around. That’s when it’s important to test for correct temperatures and follow dehydration procedures.

Taste & Ease of Cooking

Again, people love the taste of dehydrated food and the variety of possibilities. You can make cookies, fruit leather and even bread and crackers with a dehydrator! Many foods like vegetables and fruits are regularly enjoyed in their dehydrated form. Other foods are rehydrated by soaking in water or boiling.

With canning, the contents of the jar are completely cooked. Anyone who’s eaten cold beans out of can knows while they aren’t delicious, they’re certainly edible even without heating. Because of the chemical requirements of safe canning, you need to balance the salt and acid content in the food. This means certain foods are a little saltier or sweeter than your preference. Canned food also has a distinctive texture and taste some people don’t like.

Nutrition

Proponents of dehydrating foods often cite the nutritional benefits of raw food. When food is dehydrated it isn’t cooked. The dehydrating happens at a very low temperature, which means it’s an appealing solution for those who follow a raw food diet.

sun dried tomatoes taste amazing

With canning the food is cooked. However, it is often preserved right from the garden—much fresher than if it had to travel miles from harvest to processing plant. Food preserved in it’s peak state, whether dehydrated or canned often has the same or better nutrition than food stored in the fridge for a while. In both methods of preservation, plenty of good nutrition remains.

Canning or Dehydration: Which Method Wins?

So, which is best? Canning or dehydration? It really depends on the food. Both methods are excellent and serve a purpose.

For storage in a small space, however, dehydration certainly has benefits. After all, when food has been dehydrated, it’s often smaller and “shrunken down” from the original state (think of a raisin versus a grape). Dehydrated food can also be stored in vacuum seal bags or airtight containers—boxes or even reused jars. Canned food is stored in well, cans (or Mason jars) which take up a fair amount of space.

Your dehydrator also requires storage, which is a consideration before you invest. But many dehydrators are fairly compact. Again, the dehydration process also works in your oven (and yes, even in the sun).

What Can be Dehydrated?

You can dehydrate all kinds of different foods. The most common of course are fruits and vegetables and people often think of jerky as well.

Did you know you can also dehydrate breads and baked goods? Make crackers, naan and flatbreads right in your food dehydrator. It’s not difficult, but most require you “flip” them part way through the process to dry both sides. Many people love making cookies and bars in their food dehydrator. You can create fruit leather and even yogurt in some dehydrators.

Most foods need to be cut into small chunks to dehydrate properly. Here are the typical drying times and process to get you started.

Fruits

To start dehydrating fruits, it’s best to begin with the simple basics. Sliced apples, pineapple, apricots and mangos are all great dried fruit for first-time dehydrators.  Banana chips are another common dehydrator-friendly food. Slice the fruit into bite-sized pieces, 1/4 to 1/8 inch thick.

fruit leather

Fruit puree results in easy, delicious and portable fruit leather. Puree three cups of cooked fruit (frozen or fresh) and add water as needed so it’s spreadable. Pour it 1/8-inch-thick into parchment lined trays of your dehydrator or a lined baking sheet. Dehydrate fruit or fruit leather at 140 for 6-12 hours. Test for tackiness as you go. Use honey or syrup to sweeten.

Vegetables

With vegetables, you’ll want to blanch or steam the vegetable first (particularly if it’s a veggie you’d eat cooked normally like green beans). Mushrooms, onions and other “raw-friendly” vegetables don’t need pre-cooking. As with fruit, slice the vegetables into bite-sized pieces, 1/4 to 1/8 inch thick.

The method for drying vegetables is very similar to fruit. The drying often concentrates the natural sweetness in the vegetables and with a little salt and seasoning they turn into great chips. Try tomatoes and peppers for a chewier snack too. Depending on the moisture content in the food, it will take anywhere from 6-12 hours.

dried corn for cooking

Once dried, store your dehydrated food in airtight containers, jars or FoodSaver-type vacuum seal bags. Once opened or exposed to air, the food should be enjoyed within two-weeks. The shelf-stability will depend on the amount of moisture left in the food, so use common sense. Obviously, if you see signs of mold or spoiling, discard the food.

Meats

To make jerky in a dehydrator, you’ll need to heat it higher. Meat needs to be cooked to a temperature of at least 160 degrees, so preheat your oven or dehydrator first for at least thirty minutes, before you start. Marinate meat ahead of time, using your favorite flavoring.

The internal temperature of the meat must reach 160 during the cooking process to remain food safe. You can do this by either drying your jerky for 4-6 hours in the dehydrator and then cooking for 10 minutes in a 275-degree oven OR steam or roast the meat to an internal temperature of 160 degrees before dehydrating for 4-6 hours.

When it comes to meat, remember you aren’t limited to just beef jerky either. Try pre-sliced ham, beef or turkey for a great, different flavor (following the same method). You can also dry fish, such as salmon!

Methods for Dehydrating

There are several methods for dehydrating foods. The oven is probably the most convenient (since most people own an oven), but if you enjoy dehydrating often and like the convenience of “setting and forgetting it,” a dehydrator is a worthwhile investment.

Oven

Using the oven to dehydrate your food is easy. Simply preheat your oven to 145 degrees for fruits and vegetables and 160 degrees for meat (following the jerky process outlined above). Using a wire rack on a cookie sheet will help air circulate, but food dries well on a silicone baking sheet also. You may want to use parchment too. Parchment works especially for fruit leather– easily peel, cut and roll the leather before you enjoy.

Smoking/Salting

preserve food with salt

If you want to cure and preserve meat the old-fashioned way, smoking and salting are tried and true methods. Because the objective is to remove all moisture from the food before preserving these methods work well and add great flavor. There are a number of food safety guidelines to follow if you decide to cure, smoke or salt your own food. For the best guidelines I recommend visiting the National Center for Home Food Preservation’s site on Smoking and Curing.  The internal temperature and sanitation guidelines are critical especially when working with raw meat.

Dehydrator

You can purchase a basic food dehydrator for $60 on up to deluxe models costing in the thousands. If you frequently preserve food, investing in a dehydrator may be worth it. This is especially helpful for hunters, gardeners or those who rely on food storage during the winter months (or if you simply enjoy dehydrated and dried foods). Dehydrating is a great way to extend your food storage capacity and safely prepare food to enjoy later.

food dehydrator excalibur

The Nesco and the Excalibur brand food dehydrators are the most popular and well-reviewed. There are also models from Presto, NutriChef and Cuisinart. For simple, small space dehydrators Nesco offers both a small square dehydrator and small round version for well under $100. Watch second-hand stores or Craigslist to score a dehydrator on the cheap.

If you’re interested in preserving food for storage or simply for delicious snacks, food dehydration is a great way to go. It’s easy and fun. You’ll end up with plenty of delicious foods to enjoy for months. After talking to Jennifer about dehydrating, I’ve definitely decided to give it a shot. Even if you’re a beginner, dehydrating is a great way to preserve food!

Setting Up Your Land To Start A Homestead

When you’re just starting out and setting up your homestead there are a lot of things that you need to think about.  We all have big aspirations of what we want to do on our land, but there is a lot of work that needs to go into it all before we can really do anything.

land to homestead

In some cases we are coming into a piece of property, or our property that we already live on has certain elements, layouts or assets that we need to work with or around.  While I am always looking to capitalize on what I already have in place, I’m also not afraid to make changes or remove something if it doesn’t work in the way I need it to.

Get A Plan In Place

When it comes to setting up your land, I always ask myself a few key questions:

  • What is the land telling me?
  • What are the very specific things I want to do on the land?
  • What are the workflows that are going to happen on the land?
  • How can I reduce effort, improve ergonomics, and make it more efficient?
  • How can I design it to be flexible?

These are some really important questions to ask yourself because if we are just starting out, we can nail these few considerations and make our lives easier, our design will work for us, we will have less frustrations, and we can prevent burnout or injuries.

What Is The Land Telling Me?

take time to listen to the landWhen it comes to setting up land or starting on a new piece of property we need to make some observations before we begin.  If you have the chance, try to live on the land for a year before committing a lot of time or money.  It also gives us time to take a bunch of soil samples and get them analyzed.  That isn’t always possible, but if you can manage it, it’s well worth your time.

By taking the time to see how each season works with the land you’ll understand it’s character.  You’ll learn where the warm sunny spots are and where cold air settles in low spots. You’ll learn where water pools in the rainy season, where it soaks into the ground well and other areas that it just seems to sit on the surface for a long time.  All these things tell you how the land naturally behaves and it’s our job to work with that, not against it.

Two things I’ll do on a new property is in the cooler months, go walking in shorts despite the cold.  This let’s me sense with my legs what parts are warmer or colder than others.  If it starts to rain a whole lot, I’ll put on a rain jacket and go out walking; looking for how the water flows on the land, where it pools, where it gets boggy.  All these things are helpful in your planning.

What Are You Going To Do On The Land?

writing in notebookBefore we even begin to plan what our homestead is going to be like, we need to know what we are going to do on that land.  We can’t figure out a direction to walk if we don’t even know where we are going!  Take the time to be honest about you and your life.  If you’re going to homestead and work a full time job, what can you honestly dedicate to your farmstead when you’re pulling 40 or 50 hours a week?

Plan for your worst day, not your best day.  When you’re tired from work, it’s raining out and very cold in January, what do you want your life on that land to be like on that day where you want to do nothing?  If you plan for that, every other day will be a pleasure and it will make it viable for the long term.

When I was planning my future homestead I realized that a lot of what I thought I wanted to do just didn’t fit with my lifestyle.  I wanted to travel some, not have to wake up at the crack of dawn, and have a place that I could easily keep up so I could relax sometimes.  This meant certain things were ruled out and other things became more realistic.  What life do you want to lead on that land?

What Are The Workflows?

If we are planning to homestead, we are the kinds of people that don’t shy away from hard work, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be smart about our work either.  I started out with a list of everything I wanted to do on my homestead and then broke each one down into that activities and actions that needed to take place for those things to happen.

feeding chickens

We want to be super efficient and be smart about everything we do, because there is never enough time in the day and a little planning up front will pay off big on the back end.  So come up with your list and then start to envision in your mind how you’re going to do everything.  What are you doing, what do you need to do those things, where are you lifting, moving, pulling, pushing.  Play out these things in your mind to figure out how you’re going to do work on your stead.

Reduce Effort, Improve Ergonomics, and Make it More Efficient

We want to be smart about how we get things done on the farm. A really great primer to this way of thinking is 2 second lean principles, which we did a post on.  On our farm, we want to always be looking for ways to be better, work smart and reduce possibility of injury.

An example would be chickens.  Let’s say you want 5 birds in a chicken tractor, in my mind I’d play out a day in the life of taking care of them. I wake up at my normal time and get ready.  I walk out to the tractor, it’s raining outside so the ground is wet. I go to a bin in the garage to get their feed and fill their feeder which is clogged so I have to climb into the tractor, and I drag the hose across the yard to top of the waterer.  I reach into the nesting boxes to get any eggs and I move the tractor a few feet to fresh grass.

improvement on the land

So from this example I’d analyze what work happened and how I might make it better.  Starting out with it’s raining and the grass is wet (remember plan for your worst day) it would be really good if I had some farm boots to wear out to the coop so I don’t get my professional job shoes dirty and wet.  I needed to get some feed, where did that feed come from? Is there a way that I could back my truck right up to where I need to unload it?  Do I have to bend or lift things, is there a way I could reduce it or prevent injuries/strains?

Is there a way to locate the feed and water closer to the chickens?  I might consider if a mobile coop is worth it, or would a fixed coop allow me to run a water line to it and have a little storage area right there to keep feed in and back my truck bed right up to it?  If I have to get in the coop, maybe it’s better to make it 6 feet tall so I don’t have to stoop inside, and how can I set it up so I don’t have to go inside often and cleaning is a breeze?

golden comet chicken

Think through all these things, look for places where a tweak can save your from extra work, walking back and forth, repetitive tasks, or not having things right where you need them.  If we are starting from scratch, let’s make our lives easier!

A Flexible Design

When we are starting, out we are operating under a lot of assumptions and even with careful planning and experience, we may find that our plans need to change.  Being flexible is a huge part of being able to solve problems and as homesteaders at our core, we are good problem solvers.

If I’m spending time to build something, paying money to install something or other big decisions, I ask myself what if I had to move this, change it or expand it? If we ask these things we can think about the future and bring flexibility into our design.

be flexible with your plans

A real good example is running water lines for spigots.  When I ran mine I had the trencher rented for a day. That meant I could keep trenching to add more hydrants.  At that point adding 100 feet more of water line and putting in three more hydrants was very easy and pretty cheap.  Hydrants are $70 each and I can buy a 100 foot roll of pex for $40.  So I ran my water lines where I needed them, then added one in the back corner, one near where I could build another garden bed in the future, and one next to my driveway to wash my car.

Think about if you had to change things, move things and what happens if my plans don’t work.

Access Is Key

There are a few things I always look for when considering land and access is critical. The first step to getting the land to the point where you can live on it is simply being able to access it. This comes in the form of roads, driveways, turnarounds and parking pads.

Before you even think about laying down the road, you must first clear the way, remove trees, level the dirt and make your path to your new home. You have a couple of options: gravel, cement, and asphalt. Gravel is the most economical and I’ve found if you know how to build a gravel drive properly it can last for a long time.

road access to land is important

Always go bigger than you think you need. You want to make sure that you can easily fit a dump truck, cement truck or trailer and have good places to park and turn around for the bigger vehicles and trailers.  I would also clear 4 to 5 feet on either side of the driveway and grade it somewhat. When you open up the woods you’ll find that trees start to push into the opening as they make a bid for sunlight, this will give you a buffer so you don’t instantly need to start cutting it back.  I give myself this buffer so I can just run a bush hog down either side and make quick work of it.

If you can get your water, sewer, internet, phone and power installed before you put down your final grade of gravel, you’ll save yourself a lot of work in many cases.  I’ve had it where the power company came in and said they would put in the line for free, but they needed to trench right down the middle of the drive.  If you allow 4-5 feet on either side, you can give yourself room to trench utilities into the property without tearing up your road and make it easier when repairs are needed.  I always try to put my sewer on one side of the road and drinking water on the other. For power lines if buried, I try to put power on one side of the road and data/phone on the other so there is no EM interference.

Here is a video of the installation of my road, turnaround and parking pad. Note I had a much easier time because there used to be an old dirt road in this location, so it was simply a matter of cleaning it up and leveling it out. The whole process took about 6 hours of hard work.

Infrastructure

There are a few things that are critical to actually making a piece of land or a home viable, this all comes down to installing critical infrastructure right off the bat and doing it the right way.  This is one of those things that doing it half measured is not going to cut it.  The saying is “buy one, cry once” and when it comes to getting your infrastructure in, this couldn’t be truer.

Water

No matter what you’re going to do or how you’re doing it, you need to have a very reliable, high quality water source that brings it right to where you need it.  I have seen people who tried to save a few bucks, had a water truck deliver water to them, do water catchment, try something alternative or temporary and it never works out.  If you can get tied into a municipal water line or have a good well dug for you, I’d save up for it or skip that land.  Water is life and you can’t compromise on it, you’ll just end up frustrated, broke, and doing it the right way like you should have the first time.

water connection

For water I am connected to the city water. The meter and installation cost me $2,200 (city sets price), but that is only from the water main to the closest edge of your property. You then need to connect it from there to your house, which, for me, was $700 for materials, $800 for ditch witch rental, and $1500 for a plumber to do all the connections, fittings and other tasks.  For running water lines; once you have your main connections you can do most of the work yourself and it isn’t too difficult if you’re willing to work hard.  I used PEX water line and ring crimps, buried below the frost line and frost proof hydrants for hose connections.

While you have your trencher, go ahead and future proof your system, put in a few extra connections, make sure you bury everything below the frost line and I’d recommend not using PVC or Poly Tube; go with PEX, it’s much more durable and cheap too!

Power

Having power is another major consideration you need to make.  In some cases getting tied into grid power can be expensive. Other times they will run the power line for free.  This is one of those things that I’d save up for and do it right the first time.  I currently live off the grid with my power, getting it only from my solar panels, but there are times where a grid connection would be nice.

tiny house solar panels

Heating (air, stove/oven, water heater)  and cooling take around 60%-80% of a home’s power consumption, the rest is all pretty easy.  If you’re going more off grid, starting out smaller is better and making sure your system can scale.  Check out my post on how I set up solar for my home here.

Since we are on a homestead consider if you need certain special hook ups like a 220 volt outlet for a welder, a 50 amp plug for a tiny house or camper, or running power to different parts of the yard where you need it.  Again, when you’re trenching it’s often just a little extra work and a few hundred dollars to add extra hook ups.  When I trench for power I try to put it on the edges and go a little deeper so I don’t have to worry about hitting the line with a tiller.

Places to consider to run power are: to your outbuildings or workshops for tools, finding things in storage or for those late nights of work.  I’ll also make sure I have lighting to illuminate areas I have animals really well; in case a predator is lurking I can flip on some really bright lights to spot them quickly.  In some cases it’s good to have power near the pens and paddocks so you can power a waterer to stop from freezing, a power washer for cleaning or corded tools for repairs.

I’ll also light areas for my infrastructure: a well, septic pumps, driveways, and other areas that if something breaks down I can flip on a good light to see what I’m doing while I fix it. Additionally consider some motion detection lights so that if someone wanders on to your property it will light them up and keep thieves at bay.

All these things can be done more easily ahead of time with some planning and for a cheaper cost since you already have trenchers or trades people on site.

Sewage

There are a few ways to handle this, it mainly depends on your local laws, so be sure to check with your township on what the rules are.  For many it will either be a septic or city connection.  In some cases you may be using a composting toilet or even an outhouse; these are often subject to local laws so make sure you know what you can and cannot do.

Internet/Phone

internet on the homesteadWhile this may not be at the top of musts for most people I like to include it here because often when you’re setting up everything else, it’s a good time to get this setup as well.  Having a connection to the outside world will allow you to set up security cameras to keep an eye on things while you’re away, or may allow you to work from home or remotely for better job opportunities.  Your homestead may start selling things and online order, customer emails/call and website stuff are easier when you have a connection.  Finally in many rural areas cell phone signal isn’t great, so being able to watch a YouTube video or call for help is a consideration.

Outbuildings, Animal Shelters And Storage

With any property you’ll need a place to put things, store things, or covered areas to work on things that you don’t want inside your house.  For me I have a place to keep all my tools, gardening supplies, lumber and things I need to work the land.  If you have animals, they’ll need housing appropriate to them. You’ll need storage for feed and hay, and other things to raise those animals.

If you have equipment like lawn mowers, tractors, generators etc you want to make sure those can be kept out of the elements. These expensive pieces of equipment can be made to last a lot longer if they aren’t subjected to the rain or snow.

Fencing

One major cost that people don’t anticipate is fencing.  If you have a large property a good fence around the perimeter is a large cost even if you do it yourself.  I try to get my fencing setup so I can run a bush hog or mower on either side of it while still being on my property.  This will make maintenance easier, define your property line, and allow you to walk or ride along it regularly to make sure no breaks have happened.

fencing your land

So those are some things you need to consider when it comes to setting up your land for a farm, a homestead, or a tiny house.  Keep our basic tenants of learning from the land, having a solid plan, focusing on work flow and staying flexible and you’ll have a great piece of land that will work for you.

Your Turn!

  • What are you plans for starting a garden, farm, or homestead on some land?
  • What have you learned at tips and trick when setting up your land?

The Ultimate Guide To Finding Land for Your Tiny House or Homestead

It could be to build your tiny house on or to start a homestead, many of us want a little place to call our own.  Finding and buying land is a tricky thing, but there are some things we can do to help making finding land a little easier.

finding land

Before we start looking it’s really important to understand what we actually are looking for and to that we need to understand what we actually need our land to do. Many of us dream of a 100 beautiful acres with a nice river, great views and easy access, but the reality of managing that much land would be too much for most people.

Determining Your Needs

writing in notebook

In my own search for land I thought I wanted 20-30 acres, but after some careful examination all I really needs was 3 really good acres, anything beyond that was bonus in my mind.  It can be hard to figure out what we really figure out exactly how much you need, so start with understanding that an acre is a square that is 209 feet long and 209 feet wide.  That really helped me grasp the true size of an acre.

From there I sat down and listed all the things I wanted to do on that land.  For me it was the following:

  • 1 small home
  • 1 big workshop/outbuilding
  • 10 chickens
  • 2 pigs
  • 2 bee hives
  • 10 fruit trees
  • 1000 square feet of garden

It took me a while to really nail down what I wanted to do now and in the future, but those things were critical to do on the land I want to buy.  From there I was able to estimate how many square feet I need for each and any spacing requirements (like I wanted the shop and pigs to be hidden from the house).  From that I concluded I needed  three main areas: the house (1 acre), the animals/garden section (half acre) and the shop area (1 acre).  Adding in some buffer space I came up with my 3 acre target if all the land was totally usable.

gardening on land

The important part here is to figure out what you are actually going to do. Being realistic, too often people dream of a place with lots of cows, horses, and other animals or a little house miles away from their neighbors.  Be honest with yourself and realize that you most likely don’t need massive swaths of land unless you have a very specific need which you already have experience with (ie: you’ve raised cattle before and want your own ranch).

Determine the area

When it comes to land we all know the saying: “location, location, location”.  For me it all comes down to two main factors: proximity to employment and my willingness to drive a certain length of time on a daily basis.  For other people there will be other factors, but all I really care about is if I need a job, can I find one and how long do I want to be in car.

location location location

Don’t get caught up in the trendy areas or close to the city center because those places often have more rules, higher prices and more buyer competition.  Being open to more areas and being flexible will improve your likelihood of finding a great spot.

Figure Out Your Budget

Before you get into the search figure out how much you can afford and agree on a upper limit.   This may be the time you get pre-approved for a mortgage or land loan if you’re going that route.  If you don’t have much money, check out our post on how to buy land with no money.

Use Online Tools

At the time of writing this post, Zillow.com is my favorite tool to find land.  I’ve setup several saved searches that automatically find and highlight properties that meet my criteria.  The one major downside to this tool is there is no option to filter properties without restrictions or HOAs, that was a big one for me and will be for many of you.  Since I did my homework on what I wanted I knew that what I wanted to do on the land wasn’t going to be allowed in a community with restrictions.

Some people have had luck with Land Watch or Craigslist, I personally haven’t found much luck there and the usability of their sites is a deal breaker for me.

Check this video out below about how I search for land and evaluate listings.  I’ll dig into the tools, plus some awesome tricks.

Drive Around

rent to own signThere comes a point where you just need to get out there and driving around the area you want to be in can give you some good leads.  You’ll find “for sale by owner” signs which most likely aren’t listed online anywhere. You’ll see a property that you like that you could approach the owners about if they own a large parcel and you want to buy a part of it.  There is a lot to be gained by driving around even if you don’t find any leads, you learn more about the area you’re thinking of buying in.

Work Your Networks

People always discount the opportunities that might be sitting right in front of them the whole time.  Get clear on what you’re looking for, what you can afford and the areas you’re looking in and create a digital flyer.  Take that flyer and post it on all your social networks, email your friends asking them if they have any leads and if you know any old timers or farmers, reach out to them too.  All these people know other people and by getting the word out there, you might find some great options.

Use A Realtor

searching for landA Realtor is some that you can use to find land if you’re ready to buy.  Since you’re the buyer, there is no fee to use one since the seller will pay all the commissions.

It took me about a month to find someone that I liked working with, that was helpful, communicated well and we clicked pretty well.  I found that there are a lot of realtors that will just try to get a quick sale or only kind of listen, I weeded those out quickly if they kept bringing me poor listings.

Once you do find a good realtor, understand they are investing their time to help you find your land and they don’t get paid unless they close.  If you go this route, make sure you’re ready to buy and respect their time.  It is fine to end a working relationship if they aren’t delivering what you need, but if they’re doing a good job make sure you close with them as your agent so they can get their commission.

I found mine through doing inquiries through Zillow; there was one agent that stood out from the rest for me and I stuck with him.

Go Old School

If you’re in smaller towns, looking for farm land, or if you’re really scrapping for leads check out the newspaper or local print listings.  These are often a lot of older listings, duplicates of online, but you may be able to find some new leads.

Check out local shops and community centers for bulletin boards. While your at it, leave your flyer you made earlier to see if you stir up any new leads.  Again, we may not find a lot of options, but if you do get a call the person might be willing to strike a deal or know someone who is selling land.

Talk With Farmers

Land is a tool of the trade for farmers and they usually have more of it than most people.  I find that they are also very practical people, so if you’re a younger person with dreams of building a homestead or small farm, they might be willing to do owner financing.  In some cases you can also rent land for a while until you do find the right property.

talking with farmers

Farming folks are also really great to have as friends. They’re handy, they have a lot of local connections and they have equipment that they might be willing to lend you.  You might even hit it off with some of them and offer to help out on their farms for free at times to learn some particular skill.  I remember weeding strawberry beds with one farmer and while we were working I’d ask a bunch of questions.

Take A Break

Sometimes things just aren’t working for you or the market is over-valued.  It’s better to buy during low periods because you can find more options and better deals.  If we buy at the height of a market, we might end up paying too much for that property and will have to wait a long time, if ever, to get out from under a property we paid too much for.

So those are some of my suggestions on how to find land to purchase for your tiny house or homestead.  Let me know in the comments what you’ve learned in your own search!

Your Turn!

  • What tricks and tips have you learned to find land?

How To Setup A Rainwater Catchment System

Rain catchment, rain harvesting, or rain barrels are a favorite project of many gardeners and homesteaders.  The truth is that water is the basis of all life on our homesteads and gardens, so it makes sense that we look to take advantage of the rain that is already falling on our home.  Catching water to use is a great way to reduce our water bills.

rainwater catchement

For each square foot of catchment we create we capture .6 gallons per inch of rain.  Where I live in North Carolina it rains an average of 42 inches per year, if we consider the average size a home in the US (2,400 square feet) that means that if we were to catch all the rain that fell on that roof in a year, we would capture over 60,000 gallons!  That’s a lot of water!

Parts You Need To Catch Rain Water

Regardless of the size and scale of your system you’ll need a few basic parts to put it all together.  Below this section I dig into some of the details you also want to consider, but at it’s basics you’ll need the following.

Catchment Surface

This can be any flat surface where water lands and is channeled where we want to store it.  In many cases people look to their roofs because it’s a large surface that already has gutters which will collect and channel the water into a few points where we can collect.  This could be any surface so get creative.  It could be the roof of our chicken coop, the roof of a barn, it could even be a parking lot that is graded to drain the water into a settlement pond or swale.

stand alone water catchment surface

The material of this surface can be almost anything, but do consider what that surface introduces into the water.  If for instance you have a shingle roof, there are a lot of chemicals in them which prevent biological growth and hold up in the sun for years.  These can transfer to your water if you’re not careful.  In general the best roof surface is is a metal roof, because it is less likely to impart any bad chemicals into your water and is pretty easy to clean if it gets real dirty.

First Flush Diverter

As with anything outside, things can get dirty.  In the case of roofs and large open surfaces, we find that dust, dirt, and pollen settle onto roofs.  Additionally you’ll have birds pooping on it, bugs dying onto it and other things making your roof a dirty place.  We obviously don’t want any of these things in our water, and while we can’t prevent it, we can use a first flush diverter to try to avoid the bulk of this going into our storage tanks.

A first flush diverter is a mechanical device that lets us wash of the roof with all the gunk in it, then divert the now cleaner water to our tanks.  This can be done a few different ways, a whole bunch of options can be found online both for purchase and DIY.  The video below shows you one way you can do this.

Storage Tank

catchment tanksLater on I’ll go into how to calculate how much storage you need, but suffice to say you’ll need a good bit of storage to really cover your needs.  There are a lot of DIY options out there with 55 gallon drums or 120 gallon totes, but in past experience I’ve found these to be to be a lot of extra hassle and in the end you don’t save as much because you’ll need a bunch of them, each time adding in connections that can fail.  Typically you can find barrels for around $20 a piece, but then you’ll spend $10 or more in PVC parts to interconnect them.

A 500 gallon water tank can be purchased for around $300 if you’re able to go pick it up, shipping is the tough part.  With a tank that size you’re going to want to pour a pad to set it on for stability and safety, so you should factor that into the cost.

Is Rain Water Safe?

Yes and no.  According to Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D. of Biomedical Sciences rain water is generally pretty safe to drink or use on your garden.  It’s always recommended to filter and purify if you’re not sure about the source.  When we are talking about ingesting something we need to do our research and consult experts (I’m not one).

Where I think most people will run into trouble is in the catchment and storage of the water.  The water as it falls from the sky is pretty clean, but once it lands on a surface and is move into a tank, you can run into issues with less than desirable things being introduced.  Even with water from the sky, there may be some pollution, dust or other biological elements in the water.  So always filter and purify.

How Much Water Do You Need?

I found that water catchment is only actually useful if you go big, small rain barrels are a fun project, but gardens require a lot of water and most can’t keep up in any significant way.  A general rule is you need about 0.8 gallons of water per square feet per week for your garden.  This will vary based on your climate, soil and crops, but it’s a good place to start.

So figure out how many square feet of garden you have, times that by 0.8 gallons to figure out your total weekly needs.  Example: 1000 square feet of garden will need 800 gallons per week.  It’s also important to consider the averages for the month in your growing season.  A quick google search for “monthly rainfall in…” will give you a chart, for me I get 3 inches per month or more all year round, so I need to consider that when sizing my system.

If I had a house that was 1,500 square feet of roof times .6 gallons per sq/ft times 3 inches of rain in the month, I can collect a maximum of 2,700 gallons per month.  This would support a maximum of 843 square feet of garden (2700 divided by 4 weeks divided by .8 gallons = max garden size).  So you can see that you need a pretty big area to collect, to store and the infrastructure to move it from one place to another.

Storing Water

Keeping water stored up is no small task, mainly because of the quantity we need and how heavy it is.  At 8.5 lbs per gallon, if we take the above example that means we need support over 11 tons!  The tank would need to be 8 feet across and 9 feet tall, which typically costs $1500-$2500.  These are all very big numbers obviously and even at their scale, it’s only supporting a smallish garden.

water barell

Tanks this size are a lot to transport, to move and to install.  If you’re going to go above 100 gallons I strongly suggest getting a cement footing poured so that you know the surface below can safely handle the weight, plus you’re going to want at least a little elevation so that you can fit a bucket under the bottom drain or have working room for pipe connections.  Because of the size, the weight of the water will provide pressure to push the water out the bottom pretty well.

When you’re storing water in bulk you need to make sure that you prevent foreign bodies from getting introduced, like a mouse climbing in and drowning, or bugs falling in and algae forming. We can do this through various methods using hardware cloth, opaque containers and in some cases chemical controls.

Low Pressure System

One advantage of municipal or well water systems is they are pressurized, typically to around 40 PSI (pounds per square inch).  When we capture water we don’t always have that much pressure so we can do a few things to overcome it.

drip tape irrigation

First is we can get the water into an elevated position.  If you’re able to capture the water in a high spot and put your garden or home in a lower spot, we can use that elevation change to our advantage.  For every foot elevation we can get our water, we will gain about .4 PSI.  So if we are able to raise the water to 100 feet above where we need it, say on top of a hill, we could get 40 psi at our spigot down the hill.

Most people don’t have that drastic of a change in their topography, so instead we can use low pressure irrigation to overcome any limitations.  To meet this need there are now several drip tape solutions that are designed with low pressure in mind.  In some cases you’ll only need around 10 psi  (25 feet of elevation) to get your garden watered.

Filtration & Purification

Depending on your setup and your use you might want to consider filtration and/or purification in line somewhere. The difference between these two processes is important to understand.  Simply put, the main difference lies in the level of protection they provide. Generally speaking, a water filter is designed to remove waterborne protozoa and bacteria, but not viruses. A water purifier is designed to combat all three classes of microbes, including viruses.

dirty water

If you want to go this route, a commercial system can be had for not too much money and there are a lot of good options.  Since we need to remove things measured in microns, our ability to come up with DIY solutions are just not possible here.

So that’s some of the basics of catching water for use in your garden and potentially as water in the home if you’re off grid.  Make sure you read up, do your home work here because there are some finer points to get right.

Your Turn!

  • What are your plans to for water catchment?
  • What tips can you share if you’ve made your own system?

How To Prepare Soil For Vegetable Gardens

Having taught people to garden for years, many people want to know how to prepare their soil so they can start a vegetable garden.  If you talk to people who have been growing for years, you’ll notice they spend a lot of time building the soil in their garden beds.

how-to-prepare-soil-vegetable-gardens

 

For first time gardeners I always recommend to start small and because each patch of dirt is different, I recommend starting with a raised beds, which is nothing more than building a bed of soil on top of the ground instead of in it.  You can add sides made out of wood, edging or other materials as a side wall, but it isn’t required, mounded dirt works just as well if you’re on a budget.

Building A Raised Bed Frame

For most people they want to have the tidy look of a wooden frame and it can be done quickly for little money.  Start with three 2×6’s and cut one of them in half.  This will form the four sides of the bed and create a bed that is 4 feet wide by 8 feet long.

raised bed garden

This is an ideal size because it minimizes the number of cuts (pro tip: big box stores will cut it for free for you) and at four feet, you can reach to the middle from either side without having to stretch too much.  A few screws will make a solid frame for you to fill in the dirt with.

Turn The Soil Below

turn soil with pitchforkEven though we are going to build a bed above the ground, we want to break up the soil below it so that our plant’s roots have an easier time of penetrating the ground as they grow.  Ideally you would shovel off the top layer if it is grass, but I’ve done it both ways.  Removing the grass below will help reduce weeds coming up later, so it’s often worth the effort.

If the soil is pretty bare, what I’ll do is rake the top then go buy a gallon jug of white vinegar to douse the little bits of weeds or grass with the vinegar to kill a few days before I build my bed.  White vinegar will work well to kill the weeds in spot treatments, but if you have more than 10% coverage, I’d just scrape the top off completely.

The last part is take a “digging fork” and just break up the top few inches of soil, it can be pretty chunky because we’re going to cover it all with our soil bed mix soon anyway.  Don’t get too tied up in making it perfect, this is a really a rough pass that we do quickly and move on.

Mixing The Perfect Soil To Grow In

First off, there are many different options here and if you ask 100 people you’ll get 101 recommendations.  So understand that if someone uses something different, that’s fine.  For most people just starting out I try to make it really simple and we can get into more of the nuances later.  So use this mix to start and in a few years, start to try different things.  We want to get you to gardening as quickly as we can and if you get caught up in what mix is the best, you’ll never actually start gardening.

raised bed soil mixture for good growing a garden

So I use a mix of compost, vermiculite, and peat moss. Typically I buy for a single 4 foot by 8 foot bed that’s around 6 inches deep the following:

  • 10 bags of compost (one cubic foot size bags)
  • 1 bale of compressed peat moss (three cubic feet size)
  • 1 bag of vermiculite (4 cubic foot sized bags).
  • 1 small bag of Bone Meal
  • 1 small bag of Blood Meal

If you don’t know what these are, just print this post off and bring it with you to any big box store, they’ll know exactly what you need from this list.  If the employee doesn’t know these items, it’s best to find someone else because these are gardening 101 supplies.

Compost

mushroom compsting mixFor compost you’ll find a lot of different options, my favorite is “mushroom compost” which you can find bags at any big box hardware store.  A close second is “Black Kow” compost.  I’ll often grab a few of each to make up my 10 bags for my bed.

If you can’t find these specific ones, it really isn’t a big deal, use whatever compost you can find at your local store or garden center.  Compost provides a lot of nutrients to your plants and serves as the base for seeds to root into.

Vermiculite

bag of vermiculiteVermiculite is essentially rock dust crushed up, it provides a lot of minerals for your plants, but it’s main function is to act like a sponge for water.  Be sure not to get confused with perlite, it’s not the same.  This one might take some calling around to find, if there is a local gardening group they might have some good leads.

I will also add a note here that if you start searching around about vermiculite, you’ll inevitably run into an old timer that will make the point about asbestos in vermiculite.  This is something that we had to worry about 40 years ago, but today there is no source allowed in the USA or Canada that doesn’t carefully screen and test for this.  The myth still persists today, but you should have zero concerns because the industry has long made changes to prevent this.

Often garden centers or seed/farm supply places carry it.  I’ve even seen it in small bags at your big box hardware stores.  If you can’t find it consider purchasing a few bags off of Amazon, while it’s a bit more expensive locally, you can buy a few of these bags of vermiculite and be good for a 4×8 bed.

Peat Moss

package of peat moss or spagnum mossThe last part of the soil mix.  This fluffs up the soil, allows for good oxygen infiltration and also acts like a sponge to hold in moisture until plants need it.  This can be found anywhere and they type or brand doesn’t matter.  The only thing I’ll suggest is make sure you get it from the soils section where you’d find your bags of compost or near the bags of mulch section.  Sometimes they sell small bags that are meant for growing orchids, these are often expensive, but the ones in the bagged compost section is usually sold “compressed” for very cheap ($10-$20 for 3 cubic feet compressed).

A common question that comes up around peat moss are concerns about if peat moss is sustainable.  It is true that 10 years ago peat moss was harvested from natural wet lands, but today it is done in a manner that is regenerative.  If you are still concerned, consider sourcing coconut coir which is a material similar to peat moss but made from the waste product of coconut husks.  In the end, I suggest you don’t get too caught up in your first year or so, just get your first year under your belt and then work on improving in later years.

Bone And Blood Meal

I prefer to use bone meal and blood meal, but there are many options.  Obviously from their names, they are a animal sourced product.  Those wanting a non-animal source can try seaweed meal or fertilize, you can buy seaweed fertilizer here.  Bone and blood meal are organic sources of the major nutrient (NPK: Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium).

bone meal and blood meal in bags

Since we are starting out with such good ingredients, we don’t need much of these.  If we were starting with the soil in ground, there may be need for more as directed from a soil test, but since we are building our own soil we don’t need a soil test for our first year or two.  I start out with one large handful of each, mixed evenly across the whole 4×8 raised bed.

Mixing It All Together

Some people will use a tarp to mix the soil together, I just skip that and dump everything in a pile in the framed bed, then mix with my hands or a shovel.  If you choose compost that is moist, but not sopping wet it will mix easier.  Sometimes this means pulling off the top few bags at the garden supply place so you get to a lower layer of bags that haven’t soaked up any recent rain.

Here is my basic approach:

  • Take your peat moss bale and place it in the bed
  • With a shovel stab the plastic in a line to break open the bale
  • Turn it over to dump the peat on the ground and remove the plastic
  • Shake out half your vermiculite on top of the peat moss, set the rest aside
  • Grab one large handful each of bone meal and blood meal, sprinkle across the bed
  • Place a bag of compost in the bed, stab with shovel to dump on the pile
  • Repeat with compost about half your bags
  • Using the shovel and hands, mix it all up until it’s well mixed
  • Add remaining materials and mix it all up
  • smooth out the top and give the soil a brief water

How To Water Your Garden

You want to water it a few days before you plant if you can, this will let all the water to absorb into the peat moss and vermiculite.  Water for a count of five and then stop.  Again, counting to five, if the water fully absorbs into the soil so there is no sheen on the dirt from the water, water again for a count of five. repeat counting to five until the water doesn’t absorb all the way in five seconds.  This is a good indicator that the soil is nicely saturated with moisture, but not soaking.

how to water your garden and vegitables

In the end building your soil will set you up for success for years to come.  Following this formula and starting small, you will have a better drastically easier time because we’re not trying to fix our existing soil or battle weeds.  Start with one 4×8 bed, then next year go a little bigger.  The number one thing I see is new gardeners burning out their first year because they took on too big of a garden.

Your Turn!

  • What are your garden plans this year?
  • What tips have you learned?