Nifty gadgets have their place on the homestead but sometimes you just can’t go down that often-pricey path. Don’t get me wrong — I’m a hopeless fan of wonky inventions (think egg flashlights and nut wizards), but even if you have the cash, you might not feel like cramming yet another single-purpose item into your barn or basement. Enter common homesteading supplies and the hack. A time-honored tradition!
Inexpensive and creative solutions to everyday problems might be the most important tools in a backyard farmer’s toolbox. Here are a few of my favorites gleaned from several years raising vegetables, fruits, and animals on our suburban farm.
1. Zip Ties: Worth Their Weight in Gold
On our property, plastic cable ties are homesteading supplies that have been put into service in countless ways and, despite their low cost, typically last several years, even after very hot summers and sub-zero winters. From building cages to thwarting squirrels and all the many tasks in between, the lowly zip tie steps up to a starring role in various homesteading productions. They come in several lengths, colors, and styles but my go-to model is the 8-inch commercial electrical model — heavy-duty and rated to operate in temperatures ranging from -40 to 85 degrees Celsius, well within our Northeastern United States parameters.
How many will you need? Probably more than you think.
Zip ties are strong but can also be employed for short-term uses. For example, if you don’t tighten them all the way, you can easily cut them off when they’re no longer needed. Or you can turn them around and use the non-tightening side for loose closures where you want to get in and out, for example, a door flap. Be careful, though. Zip ties are not toys, keep them out of reach of children! They can be very difficult to remove once fully closed.
- Create quick fences and covers – Attach poultry wire, netting, hardware cloth or any material you can stick a tie through to sticks, poles or pipes. I use a hole-punch to create openings when necessary.
- Hang objects – Leave a gap in the zip to make a loop. You can make chains of zip ties to add length.
- Attach objects – Signs, varmint deterrent lights, etc.
2. Cardboard Box: A Farmer’s Best Friend
All sizes can be handy but whenever a really large cardboard box comes my way, I stash it in the garage with my homesteading supplies for guaranteed future use. I prefer to employ the basic brown, made in the United States version and try to remove all plastic tape when feasible.
Cardboard can be called on for all kinds of quick and lightweight duties.
- Temporary walls – Along the lines of cheap fencing ideas, cardboard is really useful to separate or corral poultry when evading capture. (The ducks take one look and know it’s pen-up time!)
- Instant weed/lawn suppressor – You could dig it up but wouldn’t you rather get a head start by covering that pesky vegetation with sun-blocking cardboard first?
- Animal carrier – With bedding in the bottom and holes for air, a sturdy cardboard box makes a great lightweight container for moving small animals. Whenever we have an injured duck, it’s easier for her to be transported in a box than to have to navigate the openings of a typical pet cage.
3. Sticks: Not Just for Poking
Over the years, I’ve collected scores of sticks in various lengths, widths and wood types. As a newbie, I figured that all sticks were equally durable but a few harsh summers and winters destroyed that fantasy. I still use the faded, split and splintered pieces of hardwood that I first bought for bean teepees and tomato stakes but this spring I graduated to long-lasting locust for what I hope will be the last veggie poles I ever need to purchase. Those locust stakes are now screwed into the sides of our cedar planters where they support our homemade poultry wire cage attached with (what else?!) hundreds of zip ties!
You can also use homesteading supplies like sticks for temporary fencing, trellising, keeping doors ajar for ventilation, digging holes and excavating hard-to-reach coop muck, securing string for edging, flagging objects underneath the heavy snow, hanging covers or shade cloth and many other uses I have yet to discover. Keep a range of weights from bamboo light to locust hefty and lengths up to the famed 10-foot pole. You can always trim to size as well as repurpose broken pieces for many years of service. Your farm dog will thank you for keeping an extra stick around the place, too!
4. The Never-Ending Straw Bale
Many articles, blog posts, and even a book have been written with straw bale gardening instructions extolling the virtues of the ordinary straw bale for small-scale vegetable gardening. I’m here to tell you about its special advantage for poultry owners as well. Every autumn before most folks have even finished their back-to-school shopping, I start scoping out the local farm stands, hoping to be the first to score as many straw bales as possible. Why? Straw (not hay, different item altogether) makes a fabulous slow-release fertilizer that when gathered into a bale (or pieces of a bale) forms the perfect container for next spring’s edible plants.
But that’s not all! My main reason for buying so many bales in the fall is to place them around the edges of the poultry pen for instant winter protection for the ducks. As the straw decays, the bales heat up. They get warm enough that you can feel it when sitting on them in the middle of a snowy yard. That means that not only do they block the sharp wind but they also add a little extra cozy to your coop.
In the spring, the bales will then resume their slow organic breakdown, inviting tasty worms, fungi, and other organisms to join the party. My ducks love to forage in between the bales, especially when the ground is still a bit hard for digging. Then, once the first brassica seedlings are ready to go, I either move the bales in one piece or, much easier, move them in slices to where I want to grow my vegetables that season. It takes all summer for most of the bale to feed the crops and if there’s any left, it goes on top of the harvested plots to protect the soil for next year’s planting.
5. Poultry Fencing
Whether you’re talking hexagonal opening (AKA poultry) or square (commonly known as hardware cloth), netting materials from heavy-duty metal to the lightweight fabric are common homesteading supplies that are enormously useful on any sub(urban) farm. Just like the sticks I can’t do without, I keep a wide selection of everything from raccoon resistant heavyweight wire with tiny 1/4 inch openings to plastic poultry netting, mostly useful to keep out ducks, not rodents. Here are some styles and uses.
- Plastic hexagonal – Use this for temporary fencing or veggie cages for anything squirrels don’t like. (Rodents can chew holes in plastic.) It’s lightweight, inexpensive and easy to work with.
- Metal hexagonal – Use this for veggie cages, temporary dome covers, aprons for cages where large varmints are a problem. It’s lightweight, inexpensive, and can usually be cut with scissors.
- Plastic hardware cloth: Use this for all the same uses as hexagonal but it has smaller openings so it can be used as shade cloth. It’s easy to cut, but rodents can chew through.
- Metal hardware cloth: Buy the one-inch and one-quarter-inch squares. Smaller opening hardware cloth for chicken coops is useful to protect sides of pens from raccoons. The larger openings in heavy gauge can be used for overnight accommodations when thoroughly secured and with at least an 18 inches of apron rim around the edge. The interior floor can be dug out and hardware cloth run underneath it as well. Wire-cutters are needed.
6. No-till Composting
Okay, so I realize this is heresy and it all depends on what you use and how you use it but I’ve stopped getting compost from a composter. What?! Yeah, it’s true. Partially it’s because I’m lazy, partially it’s because I never get enough compost from those fancy rotating set-ups to feed my huge vegetable habit. So, two years ago, I began directly tossing kitchen plant scraps (not meat, eggs, oil or cooked foods) into a new garden bed I had been trying to quick-start. In the fall, I then added some very weathered straw bale material and the next year, voila, super successful Brassica, and later that autumn out-of-control squash.
Last winter, I took it to the next level by choosing two off-the-ground planters and trying the same thing. Before the snow set in, I tossed a thin layer of veggie scraps onto the top of the soil and in the spring, gently turned them under, adding a little more potting soil to supplement what got lost in the previous season.
Take a look at the photos. The plants grown in the two no-till beds are going gangbusters. The compost-less beds, not so much. Are there other reasons? Sure. Each soil system is different but I think I can reasonably say that using a little veggie scrap without waiting for it to break down completely into crumbly compost is not a terrible way to get rid of your dinner trimmings. Do not go overboard, mind! You don’t want to create an anaerobic environment; you just want to protect the soil in the winter and add a little nutrient with very little work.
7. Incredible, Bendable Wire
You would think I’d have learned from my experience with zip ties but no. I started with a couple of crop covers and eventually realized my farmer ambitions outstripped the coverage supply. I sought out an agriculturally rated material and serendipitously discovered handy heavy gauge wire that’s sold along with it. Johnny’s Seeds offers varying amounts, weights, and lengths so of course, I bought the largest box of the longest length (100 pieces may, in fact, be a lifetime supply for a quarter-acre property but contact me in a few decades and I’ll let you know!)
Like the practical wooden stick and other homesteading supplies, a bendable wire can be useful for building lightweight structures such as cages or domes to fit odd-shaped plants (think bush variety pumpkins) or for hanging objects, crafting doors or flaps, flagging items under snow, and, of course, holding crop covers, shade cloth and the like. Best of all, they are made of seriously long-lasting, reusable galvanized steel. Super easy to store, I tie them into bundles and stack in the garage. Who knew a common homesteading supply like a skinny piece of wire could be so useful?
8. Strange Uses for Your 1990s Pantyhose
I’ll confess here that although I’m rather a fanatic about not using synthetic pesticides or fertilizers in my home or garden, my tomatoes do get some help from a store-bought friend. That said, there’s very little I won’t do to produce a bumper crop of pizza and pasta sauces. Among the weirder strategies I employ is a tip I gleaned from the classic reference tome, Carrots Love Tomatoes: Secrets of Companion Planting for Successful Gardening by Louise Riotte. In that book, Riotte talks about how lightning adds nitrogen to the soil when it strikes the ground. This is not to say that I think you should go all Ben Franklin in your tomato patch. Riotte’s suggestion is a much milder and safer method of harnessing electricity by using pantyhose tied both to the plant’s stalk and also to a supporting structure, such as a tomato cage. The static electricity generated by this connection is said to promote a bumper crop. Your neighbors may look at you funny but I’ve blogged about this and used this method for several years and have raised many delicious fruits to show for it.
9. More Purposes for the All-Purpose Rubber Bowl
You know ’em, you see ’em everywhere, you probably own a few of these plentiful homesteading supplies; the ubiquitous rubber pans that come in sizes from two quarts to fifteen gallons. These durable workhorses are indispensable for anyone raising small livestock. Great for food, water, bathing and carrying everything from eggs to straw and beyond.
My favorite rubber bowl hack, however, is the Instant Staircase. I guess you could really call it a coop hack since there are very few duck-specialized houses on the market. This means that to get a duck into a chicken coop you usually have to pick it up and place it inside because those cute little entry ladders are not well suited to waterfowl feet. I considered a wider, longer board but that would be heavy and unwieldy with no guarantee that the girls would want to “walk the plank.”
One cold day in February, I decided to use a couple of large rubber bowls instead. I picked each duck up and placed her on the secure surface then shooed her inside. It took no more than two nights for the ducks to get the drill. Now I leave the coop door open each afternoon so the girls can go inside when they’re ready. Thank goodness for no-slip rubber!
Quick & Easy Tips Using Common Homesteading Supplies
- Your store-bought crop covers seen better days? Tear off the material and reuse the hoops underneath with row cover cloth.
- Don’t have room to store another trellis or bean cage? Make a teepee out of sticks and burlap string. At the end of the season, pull it apart for other uses.
- Need an entry flap for a veggie cage? Cut a flap slightly larger than the opening and attach one side with zip ties. Reverse a few zip ties (the non-binding direction) and use those to close the flap. This will not keep out super-wily rodents but may slow them down a bit!
- Tomatoes grow better fruit when they’re buzz-pollinated. Grow lots of bumblebee-friendly flowering plants near your tomato patch and get ready for the most delicious “love apples” ever.
What are some of your favorite hacks using common homesteading supplies?