GARDEN TIP: Homemade Tools

Shannon Hayes in her book Radical Homemakers quotes author Erik Knutzen (The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City) as saying “For me, it’s the difference between being a citizen and being a consumer. A citizen is someone who is self-actualized. A citizen is someone who can do things themselves, maybe not be self-sufficient, but can actually make something or manipulate something, and I take a lot of joy out of being able to do things myself… being a tinkerer.”

In the U.S., most people are consumers. I became very aware of this as I entered long-term unemployment and consumption was no longer a part of my lifestyle because I couldn’t afford to be a consumer. I started to notice the ways in which people around me were “citizens” as I moved in the direction of being more self-reliant.

I didn’t have to go far. One of the first self-reliant homemade tools I noticed was Poppie’s claw.

According to Poppie, this handmade tool started out with a much longer PVC pipe and a different purpose. He used it to clean out the dryer vent hose. When pine straw became a problem on the mower leaf-bagging unit, the “claw” was repurposed. He sawed off the PVC end affixed to the claw and used it all last winter as he vacuumed the yard of leaves and pine straw. It was used to clean out the hose shaft between the mower blades and the catch bins behind the mower. After the claw fell out of the PVC pipe and we had to walk the entire property looking for it, he reworked his homemade tool. He drilled a hole in the metal handle of the claw (that is normally hidden inside a plastic handle), drilled a hole all the way through a small PVC pipe, lined up all the holes and then inserted the smaller PVC pipe into his original PVC handle. Lining up all the holes was a bit of a challenge but once aligned, a screw was inserted, a dab of glue applied to the screw right at the PVC pipe and a nut fastened onto the screw.

While duct tape was not a long-term solution for his claw, it is generally recognized as a miracle product. I have also used duct tape to cover the holes in the garbage cans I use for collecting landscape debris thus extending the life of our light-weight solid plastic garbage cans (flat bottoms, no wheels). Using garbage cans is a very convenient way to collect landscape debris because you don’t have to transfer the debris from a buggy to the trash can. You drag the garbage can behind you to pick up limbs and pinecones then drag it out to the street for the garbage collectors. I don’t compost limbs and pinecones because they take too long to break down and we would soon be over-run with them.

All of this reminded me of other things Poppie has made. Back in 2008 when I first started vegetable gardening in containers, I wanted to keep bugs off my lettuce. I asked him for ideas and this is what he fashioned using rabbit cage wire, screening and a wire thread:

Then the wheels fell off my trash can and Poppie resurrected it as a regular trash can for his garage by sawing the bottom off and making a plywood bottom that he placed inside the trash can and attached with screws into the side of the trash can:

Poppie’s most innovative recycling involved my old pressure washer (don’t ever run bleach through them). He took the engine off and built a box on the pressure washer’s platform. He keeps his trash can in the box using a series of bungee cords and uses the pressure washer’s handle to roll it out to the street on trash day:

Trash can carrier
Base of the trash can carrier
Base of the trash can carrier
trash can carrier underneath-1893
trash can carrier connected to pressure washer platform

Mr. Golf Cart is also self-reliant. His pitchfork was wider than mine and I asked about it. It seems he wanted a wider pitch fork for collecting pine straw on his five acres so he gave his pitchfork a “room addition”. He found a pitchfork in the trash on a job site before he retired then took both pitchforks to the local welding school and had an apprentice fashion this custom-made pitchfork:

On the ladder I got from Mr. Golf Cart, he had made a ladder hanger around one of the top rungs of the ladder with a wire coat hanger:

When Poppie and my brother were repainting the yellow trim on Poppie’s house this year, my brother brought his homemade paint can holder for a ladder:


Home Ownership and Family Compounds


I am a cheerleader for home ownership. Not only do you have the freedom to decorate as you please and the security of knowing that no one is in your home when you are away from it, you also get budget control. Rent has a tendency to go up every year stealing your raise before you even get a good look at it. Fixed mortgages do not.

In most instances, you also get a plot of land with your home ownership which, used wisely, can minimize your food budget and give you control over what chemicals go on your fruits and vegetables.

I am not, however, a fan of the 30 year mortgage. I don’t believe in making “payments.” As you make the payments on a 30 year mortgage, you end up buying your house two and three times over because of the interest payments. Amazingly, it’s very hard to convince normally reasonable people to understand that the tax deductions you get on mortgage interest are a fraction of the interest you are paying out.

It’s very easy to quickly pay off a mortgage. First, obtain an amortization schedule on your mortgage. You’ll notice that in the early years, you are paying mostly interest. The principal payments are very small. Write a check for your regular monthly payment and write a separate check marked “principal payments” for as many of those early principal checks as you can afford and still have a little money to put in your rainy day fund.

At the time you are applying for the mortgage, you can also negotiate for a higher monthly payment. In 1989, I purchased a new, double-wide mobile home. Not the Taj Mahal, I will admit, but it was adequate housing. The lender set up the payments for fifteen years at $375 a month. I asked them to round it up to $400 and instantly, I knocked three years off the payment schedule. I made as many monthly principal payments as I could afford and paid off the note in 1995.

The home was set up on the back of Momma and Poppie’s two acres. The acreage was Momma’s inheritance from her Momma but it languished for ten years before Poppie was able to build a home on it at the front of the property.

In choosing to live on a family compound like the Bush and Kennedy families, I obviously had a good relationship with my parents in which they understood that I was an adult making my own life choices and they could not interfere with those choices. The arrangement has suited and benefitted all of us for the last 22 years.

I consider the family compound to be an improvement on home ownership. It takes family support to an all new level. As Shannon Hayes said in her book, Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, “Utilizing family relationships to share, rather than replicate assets is, beyond a doubt, key to unraveling the extractive economy and rebuilding a life-sustaining economy.” I covered the “extractive economy” in my February review of her book. I have to agree with her about utilizing family relationships and avoiding the replication of assets.

In terms of assets, Poppie and I have, together, bought at least three riding mowers in the last 22 years. The expense of garden tools, fertilizer, and grass were also shared. I recently bought a new leaf blower for the property and he bought a new gas edger.  We also share the labor of keeping the property looking park-like. Poppie helped build my front deck including a decorative railing, he has fixed many frozen pipes over the years, allows me to consult with him on the best way to hire someone to fix things we can’t (i.e., tree removal), transportation to family parties or car repair shops has been shared, as well as the job of watching over the property. I have often received a telephone call from them that “some stranger” was headed to my house. Momma also made many contributions that helped support my working years. Her leftovers saved me from having to cook many times. We even shared a joke about saving the “scraps for the dog” and I, of course, was the dog.

My major contribution to the family compound was paying the property taxes each year but as Momma and Poppie age, I have been able to return much of the support they offered me in my early years on the property. In the last three years, both of them have been in and out of the hospital and have called on me to buy their groceries, pick up their drugs, take them to doctor’s appointments and the like. Living on a family compound is beneficial to every single family member.

Even if you can’t or don’t want to live on a family compound, home ownership is the way to go. By paying my home off early and saving a portion of my earnings, I had the financial freedom in 2000 to go back to school for a year. It wiped out my savings but I never regretted it. With the economic meltdown, my job disappeared to part-time workers but my house and car were paid off. There was no big adjustment in moving from paycheck to unemployment check although I’ll admit to becoming frugal in ways that did not previously occur to me. I have now been unemployed for three years and have probably weathered that circumstance better than others. Home ownership was the key. A home that is paid off is also the only way you are ever going to have choice in your life. Choice comes from being debt free and saving a portion of your earnings.

Update: Obtaining homeowner’s insurance in a rural area is sometimes more difficult due to the lack of fire hydrants. See Insuring A Rural Home.

BOOK REVIEW – Radical Homemakers

I just finished reading Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture by Shannon Hayes (2010). I wish the subtitle had been Reclaiming Self-Reliance from a Consumer Culture so that it would have been more than a women’s book.

Hayes asked who “the economy” is for and defined the economy of the last 5,000 years as an extractive economy – where corporate wealth is regarded as the foundation of economic health. In an extractive economy, we work to “make the rich richer” by agreeing with corporations that we should have a compulsion to strive in careers, pursue affluence and status, and consume. She points out that if we are reliant on a corporation to provide us with an income, and another corporation to produce the things we need, we have no independence. Worse yet, in such an economy, money is no longer a token of exchange and simple commerce. Rather, it has become a yardstick by which we measure each person’s value and our own self-worth. When our self-worth fails to measure up, our money goes to diversions and anesthetizations.

Our agreement to participate in an extractive economy keeps us from looking at the real questions, such as whether we are enjoying our lives, whether we are healthy, and whether our and our children’s emotional and intellectual needs are met. Distracted from the real issues, we become entirely dependent on entities outside ourselves, our families and our communities for determining our welfare.

Hayes suggests that a life-serving economy will generate a living for all, rather than a killing for a few. In the life-serving economy, Radical Homemakers ask themselves who are they truly serving by going to a job every day and in doing so, just who was defining the parameters for their success and happiness? Who benefited from their daily labors away from home? More importantly, who benefited and who suffered from their family’s lack of self-reliance?

In answering those questions, the Radical Homemakers released themselves from attachments to employment, the status race, and denounced their role as “consumers.” They recognized two ways to make a living – working a job to obtain purchasing power or producing their own basic needs. To produce their own needs, they reclaimed lost skills and learned to grow vegetables, can, freeze, make wine, keep chickens, cows, goats and honey bees, make cheese, soap and cleaning supplies, collect rainwater, educate their children, fix their houses and cars, sew, knit, mend, etc. They also built security through relationships among family, neighbors and community, often working together to build or make the things needed in order to keep their money within the family rather than giving it to corporations. Thus money is not a critical need. It is simply a tool to draw upon when a direct exchange for something of actual value cannot be worked out.

Hayes makes the point that it is fundamentally satisfying to be involved in the daily needs of your life, whether it’s making food, music or soap. The pleasure is in the doing and in the doing, we find that we need less money.

At 352 pages, the book covers much more than consumerism and is well worth the time it takes to read. It galloped along at a brisk pace and, again, I don’t think this is a book strictly for women. It is a blueprint for self-reliance which we may all need given the politics of corporate rule.