From the Deep South to Northern Rockies: Pt. 3, by GritsInMontana

(Continued from Part 2. This installment concludes the series.)

The Homestead

We ultimately settled on a home with some acreage. The hilarity ensued as we moved farm animals (cue the Benny Hill music), hay, our combined supply of preps, furnishing, farm equipment, and other items. The move took weeks…literally weeks. We fell into bed each night, exhausted and cranky. As much fun as all this sounds, our regular full-time jobs and household chores continued. By the time the last load was hauled, we had injured backs, knees, and ankles… And the work was just beginning. Fortunately, the skills I learned through trial and error while living at the Slightly Cockeyed Cabin were all easily transferable to our new homestead.

American Redoubt Gardening

The one thing I hadn’t mastered at my rental home was a garden, and I was eager to install one at our new homestead. My husband kindly installed 10-foot posts and deer fencing for a 30 x 30-foot garden. We later learned that rabbits will chew right through deer fencing material, so if you want to make your garden truly pest-proof, you’ll need to dig down along the perimeter and install hardware cloth that extends up from the ground about 3 feet. Yes, it’s a pain. In fact, everything about gardening here is a pain. I can’t emphasize how much hard work it is. Except for the Clearwater River Valley in Idaho and a few other low-elevation places, gardening in most of the Redoubt is only for the insane or highly-optimistic. Fortunately, I’m both. And, as if to prove that gardeners are God’s favorite people, we have daylight in most areas of the Redoubt until 9:30 PM or later each summer evening, allowing us gardeners to enjoy our hobby for many hours after our day job ends.

While most experts suggest that you “start small”, I disagree. My motto is GO BIG! Go ahead and get your garden infrastructure in place and make it as large as you imagine you will ever need. (After only a few years, I wished that  I had made my garden footprint larger.) You’ll probably need some good soil delivered, too, as our soils tend to be poor. I advocate that you start large because any area you can’t garden (due to time restrictions, cost, etc.) can simply be covered with cardboard and a thick layer of straw. Then, when you’re ready (or if there’s an urgent need for it), it’s there waiting for you. In the meantime, you can toss in any compost you may have, steadily building up your own healthy soil for future use.

After much trial and error, straw became my number one favorite garden helper. It not only keeps weeds at bay, but it helps keep the soil from drying out in our arid climate. And, after living on our homestead for a few years, I had several nice piles of mellow cow poo accumulated from cleaning the corrals. This aged cow poo is a wonderful amendment to the soil in my garden. (Note: I don’t recommend horse poo… it creates more weeds.)

Short Growing Seasons

Getting the hang of a much shorter growing season will take some practice, but there’s nothing quite like the joy of picking June strawberries, fresh kale, tarragon, artichokes (a surprising success in my garden!), Egyptian onions, cherry tomatoes, and broccoli. I have gardened now for 3 years with no pesticides or fertilizers (other than our cow poop). Just as I start to panic (the cabbage moths are destroying the cabbage!!), wasps arrive and eat the moths, then birds arrive and eat the wasps. From May until September, I marvel steadily at God’s natural order unfolding in my garden. I highly recommend mixing perennial flowers into your vegetable garden. Flowers attract pollinators and bring a source of comfort and beauty, during both good times and bad. Just don’t be surprised to walk outside one sunny morning in July to find snowflakes on your blooming roses…

If you’re looking to add some native berry bushes, I’d suggest contacting the Nature Conservancy of your Redoubt state and inquire about their springtime bare-root sale. You can usually purchase bare-root berry bushes for about 10-25 cents per sprig. It’s a great deal!

For those from warmer climates, you’ll need to get used to bringing your water hose inside on cool evenings or stretching it out on a slope, so the water can drain. Otherwise you’ll have the unpleasant surprise of a solid chunk of ice inside your garden hoses during those cooler spring days. Also, unscrew your hose from outside spigots to prevent freeze damage. At the end of the garden season, oil the wood handles on your garden tools and store them in a shed and they’ll last you for years.

Join your local garden club and take the Master Gardener classes offered by your county extension agent. These are going to be some of the nicest people you’ll meet, and they offer a wealth of information. Despite reading all I can, I found that many of my gardening successes were simply accidental. For instance, my attempts to grow foxglove failed miserably for 4 years in a row. Then, this past summer I grumbled at a patch of weeds that had somehow escaped my attention. As I looked closer, I realized a multitude of foxglove plants were now thriving in a location that they (not I) had selected. They created a delightful display throughout the summer. Try new things. There are many micro-climates in the Northern Rockies and it requires trial and error to learn what grows in your area. Cultivating a garden also cultivates patience, humility, and a sense of wonder.

Water System and Wells

Our best advice is to hire a well drilling firm who uses geologists. Around here, water is a prized commodity and water-witching doesn’t beat out science, statistically speaking. You don’t want to end up with an expensive hole in the ground, so use a geologist, and then pray. You may have to settle for a much lower yield than what you were used to back east, and the well may be a lot deeper, too, adding to the overall expense. We installed a Simple Pump hand pump which works to a depth of 300 feet. It is an important part of our redundant water system plan and serves as a final back up should we no longer have a functioning electric well pump. If that were to occur, we have enough heavy-duty hoses (and patch kits) to allow us to connect a hose to the hand pump and fill livestock water troughs. Ideally, though, automatic waterers are the most convenient way to go (but will cost around $400-500 each). Consider where you would want these located, and if possible, have the water lines run at the same time the well work is being done. (It’s easier than having your property torn up twice.) Consider installing frost free spigots at critical locations on your property.

Wildfires are just part of life here. We partnered with the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) to obtain a grant for fire mitigation work. It didn’t cover all our costs, but it helped. Grants are prioritized by highest scores, and there are many factors that can give your application additional points, such as veteran status or being adjacent to a property which has already been mitigated to NRCS standards. There’s never any guarantee, of course, but the NRCS can show you some rather convincing photographs of how fire mitigation can potentially save your home and property from destruction. The process should leave you with wood to use as a heat source and wood chips for mulching your garden paths. If you are hiring a contractor to do the project, be sure to communicate your goals (i.e. how much wood chips you want versus having wood to process as fire wood). Also, walk your property and mark any special trees that you don’t want to lose in the process.

Heating

Head into winter with plenty of wood and a topped-off, large propane tank. All it takes is one rough winter and the propane trucks might not be able to reach your homestead due to heavy snow. We went from one 500 gallon above-ground tank to burying two 1,000-gallon tanks underground and have been steadily changing over all our appliances to propane. Having our propane tanks underground prevents us from losing all our propane to an errant bullet and gives better op-sec. (Even so, one of our neighbors noticed that we had buried the two tanks.) While doing some remodeling on the house, my husband installed a 45,000 BTU furnace-rated fireplace that can range down to 7,000 BTUs on its lowest setting, which allows us to use it during a slightly cool summer evening without the house getting too hot.

Our home came with an electric pellet stove, which many people consider a nice upgrade. While it might have seemed counter-intuitive, we removed the “nice upgrade”, sold it, and replaced it with a Pacific Energy Alderlea T6 wood burning stove, with the intent of using the supply of fire wood we had laid in from our fire mitigation project. The Alderlea T6 has a small footing, puts out 90,000 BTUs, looks attractive, has the option for a nice-sized glass door, and it also has a cook-top surface and really cool trivets that swing out, providing a place to set a tea pot or keep a pot of chili warm. It’s a fabulous secondary cooking option to supplement our propane kitchen stove. If you didn’t inherit your Grandma’s cast iron dutch-oven because Cousin Betty-Merle got it, stop pouting, run down to the local sports supply store, and buy yourself a new one. Then start using it on your cook-top wood burning stove!

If there is any blessing that closely approaches that of having a good water supply on your property, it’s having a gently sloping south or southeast facing property. This will provide warmth and natural lighting for your home, sunlight for your garden, and the benefit of gravity drain systems for water.

Earthquakes

You’ll be in earthquake territory when you move to the Redoubt, which will be something new for many folks. Just so you know, your homeowners’ insurance policy probably does not cover for earthquake damage (just like it doesn’t cover for windstorm damage sustained during hurricanes). Ask your insurance agent. We ended up purchasing an additional earthquake rider for our home. A couple years ago we experienced a significant 5.8 “rumbler” and were totally fine, but it was still a good reminder about why we needed earthquake insurance.

We found that the best way to meet folks is to offer to help them in some way. Or feed them. Or both. For you Southerners, just invite folks over for some shrimp and grits. They may secretly consider it “ethnic food” but will become converts in an astonishingly short amount of time. Folks in the Redoubt are a bit more stand-off-ish than what Southerners are used to, but on the other hand, they aren’t “all up in your business” either, which is nice.

When You Need to Hire Help

There are just some projects that you can’t do alone. They require help. Take fencing, for example, or putting up a barn. If your project requires the input, expertise, or assistance of others, plan on it taking twice as long as you think it will. Here in the Redoubt, there are four seasons: fishing season, hunting season, skiing season, and gardening season. People do their jobs in between all those other activities. And, quite frankly, lots of families depend on a successful fishing, hunting and gardening to feed their families. So, be patient. Get a license and learn to fish. The river will be cool and crystal clear, and soon you’ll understand why everyone is taking so long to return your call about that drywall project you’re trying to wrap up…

Barns

There are many designs to choose from, but for the Redoubt climate, may I suggest the following:

  1. A lower roof to keep animals warmer, and one designed to accommodate snow load.
  2. Good overhead lighting for the longer dark winter days. “Animal drama” and emergency vet visits will invariably happen when it’s dark outside.
  3. Large stalls that can be divided into smaller stalls, allowing greater flexibility when you need to keep a cow/calf pair together, or when you and the veterinarian need to care for a sick animal.
  4. A frost proof spigot inside the barn. You’ll thank yourself a million times for this.
  5. Sliding barn doors that allow airflow on two sides of the barn on hot summer days.
  6. Stalls that face south/southeast so they can be opened to the sunshine. If you opt for dirt floors, this will also help keep your ground dry. (Clean dry ground = healthy animals.)
  7. An entry to stalls that is large enough to accommodate a skid-steer. You may not need that equipment right now, but as you progress in age, your aching back and wallet might prioritize a skid-steer over a shovel and wheelbarrow.
  8. If your barn isn’t large enough to store hay, then an overhang (with pallets on the ground) will be helpful for hay storage. Again, your back will thank you for storing hay closer to the animals.
  9. Automatic waterers located just outside the barn are an amazing luxury.

Everyone’s heard the phrase “good fences make good neighbors”, but they forget that “good neighbors make good fences”. Chat with your neighbors before you start installing your fence. Have a survey and ask if they have time to walk the path with you, ensuring there’s no misunderstandings. Ask permission if you suspect that you’ll need to access their property with equipment needed to build your fence. If you have workers helping you, remind them to be conscientious about the neighbors’ property. Generously allow enough setback for snow plowing. And finally, do a good job. Nobody wants to look at a sloppy eyesore that won’t safely contain animals.

Summary

This is just a small sampling of things I learned along the way. As you can see, there was a huge learning curve for this “citified” Southern gal to settle into life in the Redoubt. There’s still more to do. I would like a greenhouse and want to become more proficient at canning produce from my garden. My husband wants a larger squeeze chute for the cows and an outbuilding. It’s all a process. The most important thing you can do is keep a sense of humor about it all. We understand. This is serious business that could mean the very survival of your family, but it can also become complete drudgery without the right attitude and some levity along the way.

As I always jokingly say to my husband, “All it takes is time and money!”. Your homestead in the Redoubt will require both, possibly more than you have at any given time. We often look at various back-breaking, more-than-we-expected-it-to-cost homesteading projects and say: “There’s our Hawaiian vacation!” Hang onto your dreams, health, friends, family, and Faith. Set priorities, make sacrifices, be prudent and wise, and little by little you’ll get there.

And to you Southerners who are considering relocation: Don’t be worried about all the cold weather – just pack your bags and come on out! Y’all are going to love it here!




27 Comments

  1. Thumbs UP for excellent writing, content and organization!

    I’m a Perfessional Edtior (you that read right), and this series was a joy to absorb. Is the author considering a career as an author? That’d be nice.

    Between seasons, of course.

  2. Being from and still living in Georgia, but keeping a close eye on the “redoubt” and the rest of the world, I really loved this article. After “Drudge”, and The Weather Channel, Survival Blog starts my every morning and this article just reminded me why.

  3. I live in her vicinity and I can tell you it is very difficult to get anything done this time of year, the run off has fields flooded, roads are a quagmire of mud. But I wouldnt trade living in the redoubt for all the blacktop, concrete and catch basins in the Country.

  4. Well done! Not only an informative easy read, but clearly a writing contest winner. We too started with the manual Simple Pump system for our well but quickly converted it to a solar driven AC motor, also available from Simple Pump. One solar panel, controller, AC motor conversion and four 6V batteries (series then parallel) is all you need. Again wonderful three-part saga and wish you continued enjoyment and excitement in your new life.

  5. If you ever want to buy a wood stove, better buy it now. Obama’s EPA made a rule that goes into effect next year that will most likely eliminate the option of making or selling wood burning stoves and boilers. (It’s the fine particulate requirement. A sneaky feature of these rules is they apply to the manufacturer so the public never hears about them.)

    1. Oh goodness! Yes, I recall worrying about the same thing! Where I lived in the South, the water table was such that we couldn’t bury propane tanks, so I had never heard of this concept. Here, the propane tanks that are buried are specially designed for that purpose and have a protective coating on them. (So, for instance, it wouldn’t be advisable to take an “above ground” tank and then bury it.) Thank you for pointing this out! I really should have added it to my article because it was one of the many new concepts I learned about after arriving in Montana.

    2. Hi, B.M…..

      We buried our propane tanks to,

      1) Keep a low-key but high-volume source of fuel stored, without attracting undo attention, and

      2) For security (so that they would not be vulnerable either to errant, or intentional, bullets or to other intentional damage or vandalism).

      We were told by our supplier that buried tanks (in our soil type) will have at least as long a life as above-ground tanks.

      You probably would not want to simply bury an existing above-ground tank, though. My understanding is that tanks suitable to be buried have a special coating on them which allows this. Ours were also delivered with the access panels on top (they look like ‘conning towers’ on a submarine), already installed.

      We chose to let the professionals dig the holes, level them, them set/backfill the tanks and plumb the connections 🙂

  6. Loved this series! And I wholeheartedly agreed when building a garden go big. In Central Texas growing up, the old timers drilled this into me, grow 4x your expected yield, 1/4 for bugs/blight, 1/4 to feed wild critters, 1/4 for likely drought/flood damage (or to give to neighbors/needy if weather works out), and 1/4 for harvest.

    1. Most gas companies attach an anode bag to an underground propane tank and use a ground wire (copper) to attach(clamped) to one of the steel loops located at one of the ends of the tank. The anode bag is usually placed away from the tank by 10-12 feet to allow any electrolysis to go to the anode bag instead of degrading the steel tank.

  7. We relocated to a smaller , 8.2 acre, homesite about 3 or so years ago. We’re on the older side, kids now grown, so the physical work was a lot harder this time around. We do most everything ourselves. What helped us was to remind ourselves that a lot of what we were doing was a one time and then done project. Like garden beds, coops, sheds, etc. Then when we collapsed at night we could focus on our seccesses realizing that after our project was done we would only have maintenance to deal with. It’s been really rewarding to have been able to lay everything out so well after years of learning by trial and error. We also set up a priority list to help reduce the stress. It’s worth it.

  8. Loved the article! It must of cost a pretty penny to do all of that so quickly. I had to spread my “projects” out to be able to pay cash for them. Don’t want any liens on the farm! We do one major project and one minor project a year.

  9. Very good article, very well written and best of all was the humor that was evident all the way thru. With regard to moving animals; my wife agreed to help a friend move some livestock from Denver to the sisters place in the West of Colo. She was horrified to arrive at the designated location and see that the ‘truck’ was an old Chevrolet van..and then it was amplified when they put a ‘small’ horse in it.(the first mantra was don’t fall, please don’t fall.) Then they added a goat with a smattering of ducks!
    The wife commented that the first stop for gas, an attendant washed the front window, but he just kept staring inside and only one spot was cleaned. The friend picked up some beads and at the second stop, twirled her beads (just a couple hippie girls)at the attendant while he cleaned away the grasshopper goo. As they turned into the lane (about three miles) at the ranch, the horse who had been quiet, saw/heard other horses and whinnied. (The new mantra was Please don’t whinnie!) I hope your livestock had a better truck than a van. May you continue to enjoy your life.

  10. This was not only a good article about prepping, it was just a great article that anyone would enjoy reading. Have you thought about having a dog guard your garden during the growing season? Some breeds (those with keen hearing and a loud bark) are great at scaring off critters. If there’s a fence, the chance of a real encounter between invader and protector are slim.
    Please write some more!

  11. Aunt Betty Merle is my Aunt also and she did want the cast iron skillet. But she makes great cornbread. ( note: no sugar) Great writing ! Enjoyed every word.

  12. I concur with other comments. You seem to have a knack for this type of writing. Reminded me a little bit of Pat McManus.

    Surprised you found romance in such a remote part of the country.

    You must be very good looking, very lucky or both. Hard enough to find a suitable mate in the densely populated city nevermind sparsely populated countryside.

    Not sure I could be brave enough to leave the city but do enjoy your escapades out in the boonies .

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