Sunday, February 22, 2015

Book Review: The Weekend Homesteader

We ordered a copy of Anna Hess' The Weekend Homesteader back in January, and the day it arrived in the mail, we knew it was destined to be a night short on sleep.  Even though we did read into the wee hours of the morning, in the end there proved to be too much content to digest in one sitting.  That was a little bit surprising to us, because we could essentially go through the table of contents and check off most of the weekend projects as things we were already doing or had done in the past.  But although the projects are directed toward absolute beginning homesteaders, either rural or urban, there are gems in almost every chapter for even seasoned homesteaders.  Such is the case when a writer as skilled as Anna is writing from personal experience and the experiences of her acquaintances.  For example, tidbits we found especially intriguing:

Survey your site (April): Plan your homestead around foot traffic 'nodes' and straight lines between them.
Kill mulch (April): good candidates for first-year kill mulch plantings include broccoli, squash, tomatoes, lettuce, and greens.
Freezing food (July): Keep a chart or spreadsheet of how many servings of each food you put in the freezer during the summer and how many you take out during the winter. Use that info to tweak your garden plan the following year. (Could also be used for food preserved by canning or drying.)
Seed saving (August): Cucumber and tomato seeds have a gelatinous coating that has to be fermented off before storing.
Food drying (August): You can make fruit leather and tomato paste on cookie sheets in a sunny car.
Building a chicken tractor (August): An idea for 'fold-down wheels' on levers to make moving the chicken tractor easier, but still flush with the ground when it's in place.
Quick hoops (October): Where to find a metal tubing bender and how to keep the cover fabric/plastic from catching too much wind (or collapsing in the snow).
Plant a fruit tree (December): No-dig planting and hugelkultur prep for the tree to 'grow into.'
Soil test (January): Where to get inexpensive but good soil tests.

Also, the tables for storage and curing conditions of common storage vegetables, seed germination soil temperatures, seed starting times and techniques, and flower blooming times are especially useful references.  We would add that for the storage vegetables that like it 'warm and dry,' such as pumpkins and winter squash, undamaged specimens can make homey decorations until they get used up.

Storage vegetables as decorations.  Doesn't that look nice?  This particular arrangement doesn't make space for a whole season's worth, but the concept is scalable to some extent.

The projects can be sorted into roughly three categories: food growing (including garden and infrastructure preps), food processing, and getting in the mindset of a homesteader.  These categories are spread somewhat evenly throughout the months of the year, but the winter months are heavier on the 'mindset' projects, while the spring and summer months are heavier on the 'food growing' projects.  While most of the information is available elsewhere, much of it for free online, it is extremely valuable to have it synthesized into a single, compact reference like this book.  It's also great that where discussion outside the scope of this book is warranted, Anna gives the relevant references that readers can use to follow up if they want to get more in-depth.

We have two minor concerns:
First, some of the information in terms of food growing is somewhat specific to Anna's microclimate (zone 6 floodplain, i.e., very high groundwater level), so readers might want to check out what authors closer to their climatic conditions recommend before getting started. For example, in drier climates, planting fruit trees in raised mounds might make the roots dry out instead of keeping them from drowning.  Also, we'd wager that most readers won't have the right conditions for storing potatoes under their beds. (Brrr!)

Second, although most of Anna's criticisms of canning are justified, canning doesn't have to be done in large batches as she suggests.  See The Complete Book of Small-Batch Preserving for sub-quart recipes (or search for similar terms online for a number of blogs that also cover the topic).

So what about year two, once you've completed the 'weekend homesteader' curriculum from this book?  Anna gives a list of projects and tasks on her blog that has evolved into sort of an annual homesteading to-do list.

In sum, this is a great book that pulls a ton of information into an easy-to-follow volume that will be in our collection for years to come.


  1. Checked that book out of the library a few months ago. Accessible, right to the point, clear pictures...just the right level of depth for our needs.