I don’t know about you, but I’ve dreamed of having a homestead for as long as I can remember. The Encyclopedia of Country Living has sat on my shelf and enjoyed the occasional flip through since I was about 14.
But it can feel impossible to acquire the skills necessary for homesteading other than buying a piece of land and plunging in. However, with a little creativity, there’s actually quite a lot that future homesteaders can learn before having a farm of their own.
Here are just a few of the many skills you can learn (or brush up on) that will make getting started on your own farm slightly less daunting.
You can purchase a small handsaw for about $20 at any hardware store and get to work. Safe and accurate sawing, especially with a larger tool like a bucksaw or chainsaw, might be prove incredibly useful when a tree falls in your backyard or you want to buck and split logs for firewood. But you don’t have to jump blindly into something that could be dangerous for beginners.
You can learn the feel of a saw and start understanding what kind of pressure manual wood saws prefer, right now. Just be sure to remember that even though the saw is small, it’s still very sharp.
Handsaws can be finicky. It’s important to exert even pressure and keep the saw at the same angle the whole way through. I find that keeping about 45 degrees between the wood and the saw works well. Saw towards yourself and don’t push down too hard, let the saw do the work for you. Remember that “slow is smooth and smooth is fast.” If you don’t keep the cut straight or the angle consistent, any saw you’re using can bend as you work and get stuck in the wood. But as long as you’re careful and you choose a small piece to start with, this is a mistake you and your handsaw can easily overcome.
Once you get good at using your handsaw, your muscles will remember how sawing a piece of wood feels. When you finally get a bigger saw (or a gas-powered one), using it will come much more naturally.
Growing and Drying Mint
I’m sure you’ve all seen mint at the store or various indoor herb-growing kits. You may think you don’t have any use for mint at the moment, that it’s too hard for you to take care of right now, or that growing one plant on your kitchen, apartment, or even dorm window won’t give you any useful homesteading skills. But you would be wrong.
As long as you keep mint well-watered, in sunlight, and the temperatures warm, it’s a relatively easy herb for you to keep happy. And once you have a substantial plant, you can pick off the stems and leaves and string bunches of them from the ceiling of your attic or closet, anywhere warm, dark, and dry. Give them a few weeks to dry. Then, break up the dried leaves. You will not only have home-made mint tea but also practice growing and harvesting a small plant and experience drying it out.
In fact, you can do this for just about any herb you would buy in the store! With a little work, you can start using your own dried herbs in every meal!
Build Some Fires!
Many of us aspiring homesteaders dream of having a wood stove (or at least I do). Woodstoves can be a little difficult to use at first. You have to start fires at all hours of the day, estimate how much wood to buy for a season, and try to keep the house at a constant temperature. Trust me, on chilly mornings when the coals have cooled off enough that you have to start the fire from scratch, you’ll thank yourself for practicing lighting them.
To make the transition to woodstoves easier, dig a fire pit in your backyard, or buy a metal one. On chilly nights, you can get practice starting fires, and even roast some s’mores after the wood catches. Try to get a feel for how much kindling you need to get the fire started each time, how long certain logs burn, and how many hours after the fire has gone out the embers stay warm. While logs burn slower and embers stay warm longer in a woodstove, having a sense of what the timescales are like will be so helpful. In particular, focus on the differences between wet wood and dry wood and hardwoods and softwoods. When you start choosing trees to go in your woodshed, you’ll want to know the differences!
Tree and Plant Identification
Being able to identify trees, plants, and weeds by sight is immensely helpful whether you’re starting your first garden or years into your homestead. It’s nice to know when looking at a log whether it’s hardwood or softwood, so you can make an educated decision about whether to burn it or try and make a small fence out of it. And if you know which plants are edible around your property, you can avoid weeding them and harvest the leaves or flowers along with your intentional garden. Finally, if you know which species are invasive, you can cull them before they start taking over your garden.
Plus, plant identification is pretty easy to learn. Find a local tree or plant identification book and the next time you go for a walk or a hike, you can bring it with you and try to figure out what species the greenery around you may be. There are now apps out there like iNaturalist that can help you identify tough species.
If you feel like you already know tree and plant identification, the next step is to learn what a species’ presence can tell you about the soil! If you get a lot of certain kinds of weeds, like amaranth, that might mean you have a lot of nitrogen in your soil and you can plan your garden or yard to balance out your soil nutrients and foster a heathier garden.
Let me know if you have any suggestions about other skills the aspiring homesteader can start working on!