Book Review: The Weekend Homesteader: A Twelve-Month Guide to Self-Sufficiency
This review is long overdue. In the interest of full disclosure, Anna is a friend of mine and I (sadly, since I am only just now getting to post something well after it was available in stores) was given a free advance copy to review on this blog. Sorry Anna! #LotsGoingOnRoundHere
The Weekend Homesteader: A Twelve-Month Guide to Self-Sufficiency by Anna Hess is at times written for hardcore homesteaders who geek out about the details, and at times for those just getting into homesteading, preparedness and self-sufficiency. The amazing thing is how she does it without alienating either reader.
If you think you’re going to end up with yet another glossed-over list of tips and ideas you’ve already read about in ten Mother Earth News articles you’re in for a treat. Remember that first chapter in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond where he goes over all of the materials used to build the cabin in minute detail then tallied it all up as such…
Boards, .............................. $8.03½, mostly shanty boards.
Refuse shingles for roof and sides, ... 4.00
Laths, ................................ 1.25
Two second-hand windows with glass, ... 2.43
One thousand old brick, ............... 4.00
Two casks of lime, .................... 2.40 That was high.
Hair, ................................. 0.31 More than I needed.
Mantle-tree iron, ..................... 0.15
Nails, ................................ 3.90
Hinges and screws, .................... 0.14
Latch, ................................ 0.10
Chalk, ................................ 0.01
Transportation, ....................... 1.40 I carried good
part on my back.
In all, ........................ $28.12½
These are all the materials, excepting the timber, stones, and sand, which I claimed by squatter’s right. I have also a small woodshed adjoining, made chiefly of the stuff which was left after building the house. ~ Henry David Thoreau: Walden Pond
…the book has plenty of that sort of first-hand experience and data without dwelling on it nearly as long as those long-winded 19th century transcendentalist authors (did I mention her blog is called The Walden Effect?). Anna is meticulous about recordkeeping because she enjoys experimenting and comes from a science background (biology). Those with similar personality strengths will find the mapping, record-keeping and spreadsheeting projects extremely valuable. Others, such as myself, find them a chore and will just want to go dig in the dirt as fast as they can. To those people my advice is to resist skipping the first few projects unless you have enough experience gardening to know about things like soil types, the path the sun takes in each season, what NPK stands for, etc…
Things really got interesting for me a few sections in with the topics of sheet mulching and raised beds. This is where your fingernails can start getting dirty. Anna does about the best job I’ve seen yet of boiling down the benefits of no-till gardening into a succinct bulleted list.
The next section really surprised me. Sepp Holzer is one of my heroes, and to see hugelkultur explained so easily brought a smile to my face. People who get really into biointensive gardening and permaculture tend to make things overly complicated because they are passionate about it enough to obsess over details. This is a good thing, but not in a book written as a manual for weekend homesteaders, nor for people like me – to whom “good enough” is a homesteading mantra. Anna distills Hugelkultur down so well with this single sentence:
“The basic hugelkultur technique involves digging a hole, piling in rotting wood, then adding dirt and compost on top.”
Easy right? Then she goes on to explain a more unusual twist, in which she creates hugelkultur mounds in the form of rings around the future drip-line of her fruit trees so by the time the roots get out that far the wood has rotted and fungal networks are there to greet them. It is this ability to simplify concepts without dumbing them down to the point of patronizing the reader that makes The Weekend Homesteader a must-read for anyone just getting into gardening or homesteading, while also having plenty of gems for folks who have been at it for years. Other intermediate information examples include the difference between sedges and rushes (and what they mean in regard to soil moisture), to the exact carbon to nitrogen ratio needed from compost materials (C30:N1).
Normally trying to hit beginner, intermediate and even a few advanced topics in the same book only serves to alienate every reader at some point. Either it will be over your head or boring. I have read may books like this and usually just end up skimming around to find what interests me most. In this book, however, the simple stuff is detailed enough to keep everyone’s interest (and often she’ll have a unique take on something you may have thought you knew about).
The nutrition section seemed a little bit thin or out of place. I can see where nutrition information would be important to a homesteader, but if it is to be covered it is worth going into more detail. That, however, could easily end up being a book within itself.
I really enjoyed all of the visual aides that accompany the text on topics like the C:N ratios of various types of mulch. The matrix showing different dynamic accumulators and the micro and macro nutrients they accumulate is very helpful if you know what the abbreviations stand for, but there were a few on there that I didn’t know, which meant I had to jump online and try to find out. Maybe in the next edition there will be a legend of some sort. The “when to plant” matrix in the July section is very helpful, especially since it includes harvest dates as well. The blanching time table for freezing food is simple and extremely helpful. Blanching things for too long destroys nutrients, while not blanching long enough allows the enzymes that cause the food to go bad to continue doing their work in the freezer.
You can tell when Anna is speaking from experience, such as when she admits to not fooling with compost piles too much. Instead she chooses to break down food scraps through chickens and worms, and her knowledge in those areas is clearly hard-won by experience.
I wish the clothesline section had instructions on how to build the the main T-Post supports on each end (here’s how).
The seed-saving section was great. It dealt with a lot of issues (when to get the seeds, fermenting, how to store seeds) in only 11 pages. I’ve seen the same level of information take up several dozen pages without actually providing any more useful knowledge.
I love this quote:
“The only supplies you need to dry fruits and tomatoes is a sunny car and some cookie sheets.”
By August she starts getting into things like building chicken tractors and rain barrel water catchment systems so if you’re looking for some more construction-oriented projects to perhaps share with your significant other you can check out these months for starters.
I have to say my favorite chapter in the book was Voluntary Simplicity, which starts on page 195 in the month of September. If you don’t know the difference between what you “want” and what you “need” or are always afraid of taking the leap into financial independence because you “can’t afford to” – and yet you make more than $50,000 a year with a family or 4 or less – you don’t want to homestead. You may want to grow more of your own food, simplify your life somewhat, and save a little more money, but homesteading is built on a foundation of frugality. A homesteader always tries to make or do things themselves first (if you don’t have that DIY muscle don’t worry, it strengthens with exercise), and is always on the lookout for things they can do without, as well as things they can re-use or get one more use out of. As the saying goes, “Use it up; Wear it out; Make do, or do without.” This chapter hit the nail on the head and was written by someone who made the leap into homesteading and financial independence on less than $12,000 a year between two people. For this reason, to some the chapter may sound harsh. But sometimes a reality check is what we need to get us to take our dreams seriously and give them the attention they deserve.
I highly recommend The Weekend Homesteader by Anna Hess, and I’m not just saying that because Anna and Mark are two of my favorite people. This book is going to be pulled off the shelf again and again over the years. It is going to be one of those resources that I grow into over time and reach for often. Have a look at Anna’s author page on Amazon to see how she is leveraging modern technology to free herself to live the life of voluntary simplicity she loves. Their story embodies the story I want to tell in book form, and am increasingly considering in blog-turned-eBook form, as Anna has done with The Weekend Homesteader.