Living the Homesteader Dream – Hope Springs Every Spring

This morning we were racing the rain. Over the last week we’ve been planting dozens upon dozens of trees. It’s late February, and by the end of March, the greenery of spring will start to appear here, followed by some of our early bloomers: redbuds, rhododendron, mountain laurel, and dogwoods. We bought somewhere in the vicinity of 100 native trees this spring to fill in along fence lines, property boundaries, separation hedges, and odd spots like around the sediment pond and medicinal garden.

We did go in for some ornamentals for a small patch of pretty stuff we are growing amongst the wood shed and (future) outdoor root cellar. We didn’t have a dogwood on the property, so we got one for this area as well as several for placement in the right-of-way beneath some powerlines. We also put an Eastern red cedar, which has an amazing aroma and medicinal qualities. I learned that the “red stick” for which my birthplace (Baton Rouge, Louisiana) was named were Eastern red cedar.

Over the week, we’ve developed a system. I’ve been struggling with a knee-injury caused by a wind-swept car door, which slammed on my leg and cut a small section of my ligament, now rolled up into a small lump on my kneecap. All of this is to say, our tree-planting system involves me doing the stand-up work—digging a hole with a post-hole digger and scooping mulch—while Emma does the low-lying work of actually putting trees in the ground. This morning, with our last 15 or so trees to go, we performed our perspective tasks with aplomb. It almost seemed ashamed to have to move on.

The medicinal/tea garden has gotten its first additions. Along the southern (sun-facing boundary), we’ve planted a hedgerow of New Jersey tea shrubs (Ceanothus americanus), and along the eastern boundary, we’ve added an elderberry, sassafras tree, and spicebush (Lindera benzoin). We also found a local (North Carolina) source for standard tea shrubs that form a hedge on the northside, where they can get a little shade. The inside will be adorned with various medicinal plants like licorice, echinacea, valerian, chamomile, St. John’s wort…

Along the southwestern fence line of our food forest, we’ve planted honey locusts just inside the fence with the hope of eventually replacing the old fenceposts with live ones and coppicing the locust for firewood (some of the best stuff around here). Around the sediment pond, in addition to last year’s weeping willow, we’ve put in some elderberry and a downy serviceberry for productive erosion control, and an American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) is started just up the slope a little, right along the forest edge. We’ve sprinkled crabapples, American pawpaws (Asimina triloba), serviceberries (Amelanchier arborea and A. canadensis), and elderberries throughout hedges, nooks, and crannies. We’ve planted a row of silky willow trees (Salix sericea) for erosion control along our dam, near the open spillway-waterfall where we’ve had to remove small pines that had been allowed to grow on the wall before we bought the property.

These trees, this process, we’ve been waiting all winter to do it. We’ve been waiting years to do it. Emma spat in each hole with a sheepish grin, proclaiming it connected her to the plant. It’s amazing to think these are just trees for the periphery. These aren’t even the food forest proper, though the collection is ripe with good eats. I repeated: If only half of them survive, it will still be amazing. It was as if the starkness of winter had not quite let go of me, that some piece must be prepared for the worst. But, each tree got in the ground with every intention it would be in the landscape of our life for decades to come.

Tea Plants with Dappled Shade – Image provided by author


Every spring, even before it, new life seems to be a bottomless well of promise. Last week we spent days pouring over seed catalogues for this year’s varieties. We made charts and plotted out our garden beds to house new companions we’d read about. Each year we’ve grown our garden annuals we’ve pulled more food from them. We’ve gone from a scattershot collection of growing of dozens of species to a backbone of reliable crops while we play on developing consistency, quality, and quantity with other stuff.

We’ve discovered amazing heirlooms like Cherokee lettuce, which tolerates the heat of summer and has survived the depths of winter. It is our lettuce of choice now, the one. We also have a “Cherokee Trail of Tears” pole bean that, due to its astounding production, has replaced any desire for growing other green beans. These had started as an experiment for growing dry black beans, but they’ve proved just as exciting as green beans. After the Cherokee Trail of Tears pole beans, I put my faith in these namesake varieties. We also grew Cherokee purple tomatoes last year, and they were our most productive.

This year I’m branching out into a Six Nations Iroquois variety of dry beans. They have a beautiful white colour with speckled red all over them. I don’t mean to culturally appropriate anything, but many of these Native American heirlooms do date back to before colonialism, which means that they are probably better suited to growing here. It’s a bittersweet feeling/homage to grow them on land that, though we paid for it with hard-earned and saved cash, was at some point (the 1830s) stolen from indigenous cultivators. It’s something with which we reckon but will likely never fully come to terms with.

Still, we can’t escape the here and now, and there are yearly worries and wishes, memories of this or that not working last time or the time before. We make little adjustments each year: plant this bed a little earlier, alter the potting mix recipe, try new combinations. We scratch crops from the list (Forget celery!) and pick up new options to try (How about celeriac?). We play with developing a list of realistic staple crops to provide the filler. We dream big while keeping a fallback curriculum to lean on when some leaps of faith land short. We imagine a pantry full of preserves and produce.

It’s no wonder that the spring is full of festivals built around the concepts of rebirth, revival, and renewal. Without having intended to delve into such spiritual things, when life is broken back down to producing one’s own meals, the prospect of spring just around the corner awakens something primal. This is our chance! It’s come around again, and this time we should shoot for the stars (just like last time and the time before). Every spring hope springs aspirations of grandeur, and if just half of them work, it would still be amazing.

We move into familiar routines. One evening we listened to music and make biodegradable seed pots out of newspaper we’ve lifted from the recycling centre. Another afternoon Emma sifted sharp sand from the sediment pond to combine with compost, and she made a potting mix. We filled the pots with the mix, tucked the seeds in, and celebrated that our new cabin is better suited, with a big sun-filled window and a wide inside sill, for starting seedlings. There always seems somewhere to place a new morsel of hope that this year will be better than the last. The window will surely yield even better results than ever before!

Image provided by author.

We had waited on a wood-burning cookstove since early autumn last year, and it finally arrived in late January. It’s been heating the house since, and we’ve prepared every meal on it for the last month or more. Ever the repurposing enthusiast, I disassembled the crate in which the stove was shipped and reimagined it as a wood storage bin to sit beside the stove. The bin has removable upper sections for kindling and small diameter logs to heat the fire up for baking, and proper logs for maintaining the heat go in the bottom. Our wood has been subpar this year as it was exposed to the weather before we were able to get a woodshed up.

Winter starts to wind down in March here, so we’ve hardly got any more time to spend with our new kitchen accoutrement. Nevertheless, the dream of next winter — imagine that! — is also in full force. Ice storms have downed large limbs around the properties I look after for work, and four truck beds of firewood have come from it. Essentially, I’m earning a wage by cleaning up the rubble of the storm while, at the same time, stocking our own woodshed for next year, at which time the wood will be seasoned to perfection.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve learned that chopping wood is quite a pleasant pastime on a late-winter’s day, when the temperature in turning just so that the overcoat flannel has to be removed for such an activity. I’ve learned to work with the axe as opposed to bludgeoning everything. I find a giddy pleasure in splitting another stack of wood and stowing it away, revealing in the promise of a pot of coffee brewing over a cozy fire when November proves cold enough in the autumn. I dream of bread baking, pots of beans bubbling, bedtime tea boiling, with each armful of fuel, not a single tree downed to produce it.

What a pleasure it is to think of life this way. With every struggle winter can pose—an abiding frost, bone-chilling gusts pounding at the windows, a dead battery failing to start the truck—there is profound peace knowing that our wood coffers for next year are already earning interest. I’ll be adding to the reserves throughout the year as things get pruned, as branches fall, as opportunity presents itself. This will be the first year in our three of heating with wood that we can go into the winter, knowing that we’ve not put ourselves in some sort of pickle with the firewood situation.

Quietly, this had been an unfulfilled aspiration of mine, something I talked about longingly but never let on as to just how disappointed I felt each time we fell short. In these afternoons, the thought of stopping such progress has been as insurmountable as making such progress felt the previous three years. I know that come this time next month, the spare hours for splitting logs will be few and far between. We’ve already put early seeds in the ground, so young plants are on the horizon. Berry bushes will be reaching for stakes soon. Spring will consume us. Firewood will no longer be a priority. And, it won’t have to be.


As the last of our bareroot trees went in the ground, we packed away our tools. Emma, who enjoys getting her hands in the soil, showed me that her palms were caked in clay loam, playfully asking that I handled tasks so that she could avoid getting things dirty. It was a Friday, last week of February, and the weather was taking another turn for the worst this weekend. Temperatures were set to drop throughout the day, falling from the low-40s (6 C) to low-30s (0 C) by sunset, and rain was in the forecasts until Tuesday.

But, spring is coming. It’s near. And, that’s enough to make us appreciate having gotten here again.


Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.

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