Seasons are still a marvel to me. I lived in South Florida for more than 16 years, the land of two seasons — the hot-and-rainy season and the not-quite-as-hot-and-rainy season. I was away from the natural cycle of the year for a very long time, and now I love to watch the seasons turn. With the changing seasons, we get changes in the nature of the work at the homestead.
In the fall and into the early winter, the tempo changes dramatically. It always amazes me how much it takes to get the place ready for a long quiescent time. There are things to do for the livestock, things to do for the fruit trees, things to do for the gardens, deer and turkey to be hunted (terrible chore!), firewood to get ready…it keeps on going! But through it, you get to watch the leaves change color and fall, you get to see the first frost and early snowflakes, you get to go out and break the skim of ice on puddle tops with sticks (if you are lucky enough to have small children around to convince you of the necessity!), and you get to experience the transition of a fading year into a new one. Great stuff.
1. Firewood. This is one of the first pre-winter chores that should be addressed. I like to start felling dead trees as early in the summer as I can. Cutting, hauling and splitting can be time-consuming, but need not be all-consuming if you start early and pick away at it from time to time. Hand-splitting can be therapeutic and is a wonderful anger-management tool! It is important to get the wood split early enough that it has two or three months to dry and season before you need it, even if you start with standing dead trees. One important rule of thumb is that there is no such thing as too much firewood!
2. Mulch. As you progress into the fall, you should be thinking mulch. What needs mulching? Everything needs mulching. Your fruit trees need a good bed of mulch at the base. Your ornamentals need a good bed as well. Berry patches, shrubs, grape vines, rose bushes, blueberries, everything needs mulch. If you are growing cold tolerant greens such as collards (my favorite, but not a Missouri staple, even in the Southern part!), now they will need a good bed of mulch to extend their season even further. Even the dogs need a good mulch bed. We keep an extra pile for the K-9s, it decomposes even in the winter and gives them a warm(er) place to lay down. If you can make friends with a local tree service and offer them your yard as a chip dump, you will be miles ahead of the game.
3. Fruit trees. Your fruit trees, as well as some bushes, shrubs and vines, should be pruned going into the winter. We also hit ours with a fertilizer stake and an organic dormant spray, roots are active in the winter and sometimes the bugs wake up early. This is also the time when we give the bottom two feet of fruit tree trunks with a fresh coat of white paint (exterior latex, diluted with water by 50 percent to deter boring insects (the ones that make holes in trees, not the ones that make you yawn) through the coming year.
4. Compost. Fall is a good time to spread compost on garden beds that are dormant. Empty out your compost bins before they freeze, and let the compost work into the soil with the process of freezing and thawing. It will be ready to turn in or just plant come spring.
5. Livestock. Your livestock need some winter prep as well. Before the winter sets in you should go over all your shelters to make sure they will be warm enough for the coming months. Everything should get a good cleaning and fresh bedding. We give our chicken coup an extra thorough cleaning in the late fall with the knowledge that all the nasty stuff will freeze solid for weeks or months at a time in very near future. Early is also the time to get enough straw bales to cover your winter bedding needs. Get as much as you can and use any leftovers as spring mulch to cover rows of early spring crops.
6. Laying in your feed is another winter-prep job. The price of hay goes up as you move through the winter, so get it as early as you can. We keep goats rather than cattle, and the winters are fairly mild, so we don’t go through a lot of hay, but the horses need up to a half dozen round bales each winter and the goats never argue about a supplemental feeding! Any animals ready for the butcher should go in in the late fall so you don’t have to feed them through the winter. Body condition always goes down in the winter, and body condition equals BACON!
7. Fences. These should be run before winter sets in. Any repairs should be made. Winter makes your livestock feel hungry, and hungry critters don’t respect a weak fence! Predators also get hungry in winter, so your secure livestock areas should be inspected and your guard dogs should get a tactical briefing concerning the elevated threat level.
8. Hunting. Hunting deer is one of the best pre-winter chores. Fall is a great time to put some meat in the freezer, not just your extra livestock but whatever wildlife happens to be in season. This past Thanksgiving we were obligated to go to Florida to visit my wife’s family. Fortunately, the gathering took place in North Florida at my brother-in-law’s hunting camp. Although we missed a lot of Missouri’s deer season, my oldest daughter bagged her first deer and her first hog, and even I managed to shoot a deer. In honor of the occasion we created a new (to us) dinner sandwich, The Sloppy Doe.
If you are a trapper, fall is the time to get your traps dyed and waxed and to scout your line. We can start trapping in Missouri in mid-November, but pelts don’t really prime up until a little later. Late fall and early winter is the time for getting things ready and working the bugs out.
The changing seasons set the tempo of the work on the homestead, and getting ready for the winter brings a long chore list. If you stick to nature’s schedule, your winter should be a breeze. Remember, snowman and igloo building season is coming right up, and you are never too old for that. If you get your winter groundwork laid properly, you won’t be too busy for it, either!