Sunday, January 12, 2014

Ten Great Homesteading Activities to Help Beat Cabin Fever
“Brrr…..!”  I think that’s the sentiment felt by nearly everyone in the nation over the last week as we have been experiencing record low temperatures throughout the U.S.  For those of us in the Upper Midwest of the United States, temperatures have been near or below zero until a few days ago, and frigid wind chills have kept many of us indoors.  It has been a pretty cold winter so far, and after the excitement and busyness of the holiday season have worn off, it leaves many of us yearning for the warmth of spring and summer.  

Even though the bitter bite of winter can keep us inside, it is a great time to start planning your garden and work on other valuable homesteading activities that you have been putting off.  If you are starting to get Cabin Fever from being inside all of the time, here is a list of ten homesteading activities that can help you beat the long and dark days of winter.

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1.  Plan your garden for next year.   Once spring comes, there will be a flurry of garden activities, such as soil preparation, planting, mulching, and the buying of garden supplies.  It will be Go Time, and you want to be prepared.  A little planning for what and where you will plant can go a long way in increasing the success of your garden next year, and help to keep you organized.   Drawing a diagram of your yard or garden, as well as creating a schedule of when you will plant different plants can be especially helpful.  Could you use a coldframe, to grow something earlier or later than usual?  What about exploring some different gardening techniques such as strawbale gardening or squarefoot gardening?

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2.  Get your soil tested.  By knowing the conditions and the health of your soil, you can determine which plants will grow best in your garden or backyard, and if you need to add anything to your soil to improve it (Hint: Adding compost and other organic matter can go a long way in solving many soil problems).  Collecting a soil sample is something that you need to do before the ground freezes for the winter, but if you collect one in advance, you can submit it for testing during the cold time of the year.

Soil tests are performed by local cooperative extensions or by private labs, and will typically cost you about $10 or less.  The test will reveal your soil’s pH level, nutrients that might be deficient, and the percentage of organic matter in your soil.  If heavy metals and other soil toxins are a concern, your cooperative extension or lab should also be able to test for those as well.  

Here is a great article that explains additional information about getting a soil test done and how to properly take a soil sample.  Home soil test kits that you can use yourself can be also purchased at your local garden center, and should include a chart to help you interpret the results of your test.   

3.  Order your seed catalogs.  This is the time of year when seed catalogs come out both in print and online, and a world of gardening possibilities is at our fingertips.  Heirloom varieties…, organic varieties…, strange colored varieties of carrots and tomatoes?  They’re all there if you look for them.  Go ahead and dream!

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4.  Catch up on your reading.  I don’t know about you, but during the growing season, I have all that I can do to keep up with the tasks of caring for my garden and my home.  The winter is a great time to read up on gardening and homesteading topics since there is a little more free time to be had (Parents, you’re excused!). 

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5.  Make your own herbal remedies.  Winter is the perfect time to experiment with making some medicine out of those herbs that you grew in your garden last year, or even out of common ingredients that you can purchase at the grocery store or order online.  Have some lemongrass that you harvested last fall and dried in your dehydrator, or some extra ginger root that is just sitting in your refrigerator’s crisper drawer?  Try making tinctures out of them. 

There are many books available on making herbal remedies, as well as many online resources that can help you to learn the process of making herbal medicines.  Herb Mentor is one of my favorite websites on making herbal remedies, and they also have a podcast that you can subscribe to called Herb Mentor Radio.  If you are seeking to purchase bulk herbs at a reasonable price, I highly recommend checking out Mountain Rose Herbs.

6.  Create something bubbly.   Learning how to make various types of lacto-fermented foods and beverages is not just for the growing and harvesting seasons.  Making gingerbeer and other non-alcoholic lacto-fermented beverages can be a fun and tasty activity.  After trying my hand at making kombucha and ginger beer, I much prefer to drink them than almost any commercially-produced sodas, and they are much healthier for you too.  This is particularly due to the good, probiotic bacteria that they contain.  

If you are someone who chooses to enjoy a little alcohol every now and then, try making some mead or home brewing some beer.  Kits can be purchased to brew your own beer at home, and books are available to direct you in making mead.  I have personally never made beer or mead before, but Sandor Katz’s book The Art ofFermentation would be a great place to start learning.
7.  Learn and practice some new skills.  Looking to learn how to do wood carving, make bone broth, sew or knit?  What about learning how to save seeds or taking a first aid class?  Online resources available to learn from are abundant, such as through YouTube, and your local library should have a plethora of resources on just about any subject.  Local community colleges or Community Education organizations might also offer courses on skills that will help to increase your self-sufficiency and confidence.

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8.  The inside of your home needs some care too.  Painting and other projects that got put on the back burner during the spring and summer can be worked on, and it’s also a great time to think about what you can do to make your home more water and energy efficient.  While some projects are best reserved for the warm time of year such as upgrading to more efficient insulation and windows, you can still increase the efficiency of your home by doing things such as:
  • Installing water-saving devices on your shower head and faucets 
  • Installing a new dual flush toilet in your bathroom 
  • Replacing your older, less efficient appliances with newer, more efficient ones 
  • Plugging many of your electrical devices into a power strip that can be turned off when not in use
  • Installing a programmable thermostat in your home and setting it to reduce the temperature of your home by a few degrees at night and when you are away  
  • Cleaning or changing forced air filters will increase the efficiency of your home heating and cooling system 
  • Adding drapes and blinds on your windows will add an extra layer of insulation to your windows (Just be sure to keep them closed at night to reduce heat loss through your windows!).  
  • Having a home energy audit can also be a great way to find out what would save the most energy in your home, and utility companies often offer great deals to do so.

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9.  Give a shout for sprouts!   While winter is generally not the time that most of us consider growing much of anything but houseplants, you can still grow some fresh green veggies indoors.  Sprouts are a great and inexpensive way to grow something fresh and green right at home, and they are bursting with great nutrition such as fiber, minerals, and protein.

The equipment that you need to get started is fairly simple:
  • Organic sprouting seeds (such as sunflower, alfalfa, mung bean, radish, clover, kale, chia, cabbage, and broccoli) 
  • A quart-size, wide-mouth glass Mason jar 
  • A 5-by-5 inch square of cheesecloth with a wide-mouth metal screw band, or a fine-mesh screen lid for wide-mouth Mason jars specifically designed for sprouting 
Sprouting occurs in a non-sunny location (think seeds germinating in the dark underground), so your kitchen counter is actually an ideal place for your sprouting jar.

Organic sprouting seeds should be available at your nearest natural food store, or you can order them (as well as sprouting equipment) online from sources such as Gourmet Seed International, Handy Pantry, Park Seed Co., Sprout House, Sprout People, Sproutamo Corp, or Sproutman.  

To learn more about how to grow sprouts, check out the great video resource below!  Please note:  My research revealed that you don’t need bright light from a window or other source to sprout seeds, but the host in the video demonstrates sprouting on a windowsill.  Go ahead and experiment to see which method works best for you.  Science experiments are awesome!

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10.  Work on simplifying your life.   This is a great time to take a step back and re-evaluate all of the things going on in your life and simplify.  What things in your life are unnecessary?  Is it time to go through your attic or basement and get rid of things you haven’t used in years?  What do you want to accomplish in the coming year?  By unloading unnecessary things in our lives, we reduce clutter and stress, and this makes us happier, more balanced people.  Letting go of things can be a challenging process, but in the end, we are freed up to pursue those things that are the most important in our lives.
11.  Befriend some of the critters in your neighborhood.  Okay, I admit that this is one more list item than ten, but I feel that it deserves an Honorable Mention.  The wintertime is a hard time for everyone, including the wildlife around you.  Yes, if you live in a temperate climate, it’s certainly true that the wildlife around you are pretty well adapted to colder temperatures, and will likely survive just fine without your help.  However, showing them a little love by putting out some food such as suet and seeds for the birds, and providing them with a clean, heated water source could help take the edge off the cold winter weather. 

You might also consider planting some shrubs or other plants during the growing season that retain their seeds or berries throughout the fall and winter, and can provide a source of food for foraging wildlife when nothing else is growing.  Be sure to focus on those plant species that are native to your area to ensure that the plants are well-adapted to your climate, the local wildlife are adapted to them, and to keep your plants from becoming an invasive variety

While we can’t change the cold winter weather, we can certainly use our winter hermitage time indoors to further our homesteading goals and to gain new skills.  Even when we can’t garden outside, there are plenty of fun activities that will help to keep you occupied and tide you over until the warmth of spring and summer arrives again! 

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photo credit: <a href="">Nick Harris1</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">cc</a>

photo credit: <a href="">Jaydot</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">cc</a>

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