Plentiful water makes for a great garden.It’s amazing how you take some things for granted; plentiful water for one thing. On our last homestead, we had to haul water during the driest part of the summer and all winter, making keeping our huge gardens productive a definite challenge. This was hauled 350 gallons at a time from the spring creek down the mountain from us about a mile, then sprayed on our gardens with a long hose while the truck was parked way up hill from the garden to gain water pressure.

Here in northern Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes (and a million more they haven’t counted), water is usually a pain. Except during a drought. This is our second year of intense drought and again, as last year, our creeks, ponds and rivers are going almost dry. Because Minnesota has always had an abundance of water, many folks’ wells are shallow. And with this drought, those wells are either going dry or neighbors have to use the water very conservatively to keep HAVING water.

I am so thankful that we have a good, very deep well. At the time it was drilled–all 375 feet of it–I was upset because of the cost. It ended up costing $10,000! But now that well is paying for itself. My corn is over my head, loving the heat….and the water I dump on it. Here it is August and I am still picking peas every day. The watermelons are softball sized and in two weeks will double or triple in size. All because of the water.

Yes I am very thankful to have the water. Every time I take an ice cold drink from the hose, I say a silent “thank you!.” For it is indeed precious, as so many of our world’s people realize and most Americans take for granted. Like most everything. How sad.

CornOur water system is a complicated configuration of valves and hoses, starting at the frost free hydrant by the generator shed. Here I have a four-way valve (from the hardware store) with little paddle shut-offs to four different hoses. One goes to the front yard for the fish pond, small lawn, and raised flower beds.  Another runs away to the west, all the way down to our horse pasture tank. One hose waters the garden, down below the house to the east. And the last is for the goats, donkeys, chickens, and the orchard.

My apple trees were suffering from the powder dry conditions. (The ground is cracked and bare ground is a dust bowl!) So every night I run a trickle on a different tree while watering the garden or front yard. It is helping. The curled, stressed leaves are now open and dark, as they should be. A couple more weeks without rain or watering and I would have lost trees.

Watering in the day time is pretty much a lost cause; as soon as the water hits the plants and soil, the sun and wind cause evaporation to remove it quickly. So most of my watering is done in the evening…..when I have the generator on anyway. Remember, we have no grid power. And I have no solar panels or windmill.

But in the morning when I stand and look at my little green, growing oasis, amid the dry, stressed and yellowing birch and poplar trees around us, I am SO very happy to have the water that made it so. Right now, I’d hate to have to be hauling water again.

I’ve posted readers’ questions with my answers below.
Readers’ Questions:

Mushrooms under my tomatoes

Glad to see on the blog that David is making a full recovery! I have a question about growing tomatoes. I used wood chips as mulch around my tomatoes this year, trying to cut back on
weeds and watering. I have some of the prettiest tomato plants I’ve ever grown. My problem is now I have lots of white, puffy looking toadstools growing around and underneath my tomatoes plants. I know they’re just part of nature breaking down the organic matter, but are my tomatoes going to be safe to eat? I’m assuming I can wash any spores off the fruits themselves, but are my plants getting
anything systematically from the toadstools that will go into the fruit?

Helen Tarter
Otisco, Indiana

I wouldn’t worry about the mushrooms growing under your tomato plants. I have them all the time. They won’t absorb spores into the plants or tomatoes. Be sure you use a little composted manure or other high-nitrogen natural fertilizer after the tomatoes begin to form because the wood chips are hard on the nitrogen in the soil. But great mulch! — Jackie

What keeps you going?

Jackie, this is Suzy, the former long-time newspaper editor in Alabama who is now mostly a “homesteader” (and writing freelance trying to get by.) You’ve had a lot of tragedies in your life, especially with the loss of your husband, the loss of your dad, and then the BIG BIG scare with David….not to mention your own bout with cancer…You are such an inspiration to all of us, how do you maintain your sanity through it all???? Is your homestead your greatest comfort? or is it faith in God? or is it just your mental attitude?

Your doing all this now while still caring for an elderly mother….I was the care-giver for my mama who died in April and that alone is tough tough tough…There are so many of us who’ve read your articles for years (and I mean YEARS even before you were Jackie “Clay”) and you seem like
“family.” I hope this is not too personal a question!!!! It’s just that sometimes it seems so hard, with not enough money coming in, loosing my precious older buck goat last week, spraining my ankle the same week, and all that on top of trying to get mama’s “estate” settled (good grief there’s a lot of paperwork and legalities even when someone really doesn’t have much!!!), and it seems I would go crazy sometimes if I didn’t have this homestead and my animals….and then to have a spouse who doesn’t support many of my homestead goals (although this has been the way I’ve lived for years….)

I told a delightful woman this week that it was impossible to look at a goat and not SMILE! And she agreed! Going out at sunset and sitting on the back steps and watching the chickens and Muscovey ducks getting ready to roost, the goats romping in the cool of the evening, and hearing the rabbits munching in their bunny barn….there is just no explanation for the peace that brings….I’ve always said I’ve never been closer to God (except at the birth of my own kids many years ago!!!) than when I was there when that first goat kid was born and saw the instinctive love of that mama goat kick in…To me that was amazing…

So THANK YOU for the inspiration you have been! And know you are in hundreds of thoughts and prayers as we hear about your needs, such as the recent scare with David. But can you share a little of the “resolve” or whatever it is that just keeps you going no matter what.

Bama Suzy a/k.a suzy Lowry Geno at Old Field Farm

Thank you for your kind words. It really does help to know my Backwoods Home family is out there! Actually, my strength comes from all three of the things you mentioned. Certainly a faith in God, although he probably gets tired of hearing from me constantly every day. I try to keep thanking Him for all the good things in life as well as asking for strength to get through another day….or hour sometimes. The homestead, too is a huge inspiration to me. Some folks marvel that I have this huge garden, livestock, poultry, etc. when I have so many other things to deal with. If I didn’t have them, I’d probably go nuts! By being “forced” to do the daily homestead work that is necessary, it takes my mind off ME and gives me mini-breathers each and every day. And something to look back on at the end of the day and sigh, thinking, “This I have done today. I might not have gotten done what I wanted to, but THIS I did get accomplished.”

Having a great family and friends also helps a whole lot; someone to laugh with, whine to and share life with, as it comes. And I guess I’m just too stubborn a person to quit. I get mad instead. Jeri, one of my friends, has a note on her refrigerator door. It reads “Arthritis, you’ve picked the WRONG body!” I mentally recited that when faced with cancer, my own aches and pains or exhaustion. Another helpful sigh I saw when I was tired and weak from the chemo was in our local feed mill. It is a painting of Jesus and on it is says “I never promised you it would be easy. Just that in the end it would be worth it.” Little things, maybe, but they’ve kept me going. — Jackie

How do you make tempeh from soy beans?

I am very happy to hear that your Son was saved and they conquered that infection, Thank God! My question is if you know how to make Tempeh from Soy Beans?


Making tempeh is quite a process but it can be done at home successfully. First you’ll need a tempeh starter which you can buy at many health food stores. Once you have a starter, you can use a bit of the new batch to start your next batch, sort of like sourdough.

1. Boil your dry soybeans, then let stand covered for 2 hours.
2  Work the beans by hand so that they split in half.
3. Put back in pot with fresh water and boil 1 hour.
4. Skim off bean hulls.
5. Drain off water and dry beans, blotting with an old kitchen towel.
6. When beans are lukewarm, mix with 2 Tbsp. vinegar and 1 tsp starter for each 2 1/2 cup of beans.
7.  Pack beans well in a heavy plastic bag, only 1/2 inch deep.
8.  Poke air holes in the bag all over for air circulation and place bag on a wire cake rack.
9.  Cure at 85 to 95 degrees.
10.  After about 12 hours, you’ll start to see a little white mold start to form, which increases as time passes and the curing progresses. In a day it will be almost completely white. In a little more time, blackish and grey spots will begin to appear. This is normal. It will take about 24 hours to completely “finish.”

When done, it should smell nice, like mushrooms, not stink or be slimy. A slice should come off cleanly with no spaces between beans. It should be firm, not soft. If it didn’t get enough air because you didn’t poke holes on the bottom, the bottom may smell like urine or ammonia; this is bad tempeh. Throw it out!

When done, refrigerate and use within two days or you may freeze it for longer storage.

— Jackie

Recipe for blackberry jam

I’m trying to find a recipe for blackberry syrup that Ican, can.

Kathy Sullivan

Put just enough water in the bottom of a large saucepan to keep the berries from sticking at first. Then add 2 quarts of blackberries. Mash and cook until tender. Strain through a jelly bag overnight or at least for several hours. Measure the juice. You want 3 cups of juice. If you don’t have enough, add mashed berries to a little water, cook down again and strain off the juice. Put the juice in a large kettle and bring to a boil. Add 4 cups of sugar and boil, stirring to keep from sticking. When it is not quite to the jelling point and is thicker but not sheeting off a cold spoon, pour into hot, sterile canning jars, cap and water bath process for 10 minutes. — Jackie

Canning beans

I have canned dried beans before and soaked them overnight boiled them the next day and then filled the bottles and pressured canned them. I was talking to my mother and she said she remembers putting them in the jar dry. She put in 1 cup dry beans per quart, filled with water to within 1 inch of the top, and then canned them in a pressure canner for the recommended 90 minutes. They came out soft and tasted good. Is there a safety problem with this method? I was wanting to try it.

Karla Moss

It’s really safer to use the method you were using. The reason for this is that it takes longer to heat the dry beans thoroughly to the center to processing temperature when you are starting with dry, cold beans rather than boiling beans. I’m sure it usually works, but the newer method is definitely safer. — Jackie

Milk cow problems

We got started with our first milk cow. We were so excited to begin milking. However, We are not getting the quality of milk we had hoped for. I am sure it is something we have done or are not doing that is causing this. However, we are new at this and need some help.

The problem:
1. Salty flavored milk with a bit of Cowy aftertaste.
2. Milk cream seperates very quickly (within 2 hours) and then we end up
with somewhat “watery milk.”

1. We are feeding first cut Alfalfa. 40 lbs per day. Paying a premium for
good quality stuff. However, we were only feeding about 15 lbs per day
until we realized this was not enough. We put her on our pasture too late
so we dont have much value in the grass until Fall.

2. 2 quarts of grain at milking

3. I did have a mineral block near the water tank which I removed about 3
days ago.

1. Cow calved in June…We bought her 2 weeks ago (July), so she has not
been milked during the first 6 weeks of lactation and is down to about 1
gallon per milking. We keep the calf with her day and night, so there is
no time the calf is not able to nurse.

We have the California Mastitus test kit and check each milking. No
Mastitus seems to be showing.

Your help would be much appreciated. We are hoping there is a solution to
our situation.

Nathan Syme

My best guess, without actually seeing your situation and cow, would be that she might be running a low grade mastitis infection. This is common in cows that have nursing calves that are old enough to get rough with the udder when nursing; bumping it with their heads, yanking on the teats, etc. Also, if she had not been milked before you got her, when the calf was young it did not suck all teats evenly, which can also lead to mastitis.

I’d suggest having your vet give a look and mastitis test. The “salty taste” is very common with low grade infections like this. It comes before the common mastitis symptom of “chunks in the milk.”

Put the mineral salt back; she needs it, especially in the heat of the summer.

The milk separating quickly? That’s not much of a concern as some breeds, especially Jerseys and Guernseys, have thick cream that separates pretty fast. This is a good thing, because you can skim off the bulk of the cream quickly. But you have to shake or whip the milk to re-mix some of the cream to avoid the watery blue skim milk look.

You might want to keep the calf off the cow for awhile at least, and bottle feed him. This may solve your problem. If your calf is sucking all he wants and you are still getting a gallon a day, you have a good cow; most don’t give much beyond what the calf takes at that age. He really doesn’t need that much milk, but he’ll sure drink it if it’s available!

Also be sure you are washing the udder and teats well and rinsing them before each milking with a clean cloth with no perfumed detergent, soap, or fabric softener. These perfumes impart nasty tastes to the milk. Likewise, use strainer pads in your strainer that are disposable. In the “old” days, folks were very careful to strain the milk through white cotton (usually old sheet material) that was washed and BOILED after each use and hung in the sun and wind to dry. Just washing used strainer cloth will make it end up with cowy smells in the milk. — Jackie

Pickled asparagus problem

I get sugar derivitives (crystal like on asparagus) when I can my pickled asparagus. It looks great when I first can but 4 months later I get the crystals. How can I prevent that?

Lori Luis

This is probably a reaction to the minerals in your water and/or the asparagus. Although it is harmless, it does look strange. You might want to try pickling the asparagus next time with bottled water in your pickling brine or pick up some spring water that is low in minerals. — Jackie


  1. Do you think in a future blog you could describe how your water system is set up from the well to the house?

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