Garden Hacks strawberries on vine
Photo by Henry Co

As the spring and summer seasons draw near, it’s time to think about preparing for the winter. The food you put up now not only feeds the family, it also brings back memories of summer. And, tasks completed now make starting the next season that much easier. The garden hacks checklist is a celebration of the hard work you’ve done throughout the year and a way to make winter that much easier.

Cure Onions

Onions are one of those crops that are particularly satisfying to harvest at the end of the season, and many varieties will store throughout the winter if harvested and cured properly.

When the onion tops bend over on their own they can be pulled from the ground, although it won’t hurt them to stay for a little until it’s more convenient for you, as long as they are lifted before a frost. Carefully dig them with a garden fork, knock off the bulk of the soil, and spread them out on newspapers or blankets in the shed or garage to allow them to cure for at least a week. You want them to be out of direct sunlight. Be sure to cure them while the temperature remains above freezing. Once the onions are cured, you can store them in netted bags, or place them in baskets kept in a well-ventilated, dark area where the temperature is approximately 40 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

Grab & Stow Grapes

Homegrown grapes are special, and there is something about harvesting your own that makes your jellies and juice that much better.

Grapes tend to look ripe before they actually are so the visual inspection isn’t the only indicator. With that said, they should be the correct color, which means some green grape varieties should have a slightly yellowish tint, that they should look full and feel like they are thick and ripe. When all of the signs appear correct, the best thing to do is to sample one. If it tastes like that variety is supposed to, harvest them by taking a pair of scissors or clippers and snip off the clusters, carefully placing them in a basket in a single layer as you go. If you’re not going to use them immediately, place them in freezer bags after pulling the grapes off the stems and store in the freezer.

Harvest Elderberries

As the season wanes, the landscape abounds with berries and other fruit that ripens before winter. For those with elderberries, now is the time to stock up to make syrup and other delicious teas or jams for the winter season. They can grow wild or be cultivated in the home garden. Either way, harvest them now to use when you need them.

Elderberries are not big berries, so the easiest way to pick them is to hold the bowl beneath the blossom and gently pull off the berries using your hand as a rake. Some people also snip off the berry-filled florets and pull off the berries at home. If you’re not going to make pies, syrups or jams right away, the berries can easily be frozen in freezer bags. You can also dry the berries to use for a delightful tea.

Garden Hacks: Plant Spring Flowers

Now is the time to think spring by planting new spring-blooming bulbs such as daffodils, tulips, hyacinths, snowdrops and Siberian squill. Look for bare areas among your perennials to decide where you want the first flowers of the season, then mark the areas where you want to plant the bulbs by drawing a line around a 5-gallon bucket. The circle will give you enough space to plant a few bulbs in each hole for a new burst of color.

Dig the hole two to four times the depth of the height of the bulb. For example, tulips and daffodils are usually planted 4 to 6 inches deep, while flowers such as the diminutive grape hyacinth or Siberian squill are planted about 2 to 3 inches deep. When planting, make sure the top is pointed upwards and space them in a group of five or six, with several inches between each bulb. Smaller bulbs can be 2 inches apart. Cover them with soil and wait until spring.

If squirrels are a problem in your area, you can put chicken wire over the top of the area to keep them from digging the bulbs out before spring.

The Garden Coverup

Early autumn is a glorious time of year, often with moderate weather, but there are years when an early season frost or snowstorm can threaten your garden. If cold weather is in the forecast, cover your plants to bring them through the cold snap so they can continue producing well into fall.

You can use whatever you have, from blankets to tarps, although you never want to set a tarp or some sort of plastic sheeting directly on the plant because the cold will go right through it. Instead, put a blanket over the plant, then cover it with the tarp. Cardboard boxes or buckets also work well, especially if covered with a blanket. Floating row covers, which are a polyspun fabric designed to add several degrees of protection, can save plants even when the temperature dips into the upper 20s. The heavier fabric gives you an extra 4 degrees Fahrenheit. You can place the floating row cover directly on top of the plants and it won’t hurt them. While blankets or other measures typically need to be removed fairly early the next morning, you can leave on the floating row cover as long as you like.

Highline Your Horse

One of the best ways to know where your horses are in the morning when you’re at hunting camp or on a backwoods jaunt is to teach them to highline where they stand quietly attached to a rope strung from two trees. While this sounds simple, unless your horse is accustomed to being quiet for hours, it can turn into a disastrous rodeo, which is why it’s important to teach your horse at home before you head to the backcountry.

It’s best to use tree-saver straps to reduce the possibility of permanently damaging your trees. Start by securely tying a 3/8-inch-diameter rope to trees roughly 7 feet high and 20 feet apart. After you tie the rope to the first tree, feed it through the knot eliminator and secure it to the second tree. You should have a fairly tight line between the two trees. To tie your horse, simply put the lead rope through the knot eliminator, then tie a quick-release bowline knot.

To practice with your horse, tie him for short amounts of time with you standing right there. If you see any anxiousness, pawing or other unwanted behavior, gently correct him at that moment. Work on lengthening the time he stands quietly attached to the rope over a period of several weeks before you plan to go hunting. The horse should be able to stand there all night without fussing. Highlining is a great way to keep your animals safe, as well as making sure they’ll be there for you in the morning.

Tool-Sharpening Tricks

One of the easiest, but often most neglected, garden tasks is sharpening your tools before the beginning of winter. It’s no fun to have a nice day in the springtime and grab your clippers to tackle the project and have to stop and sharpen them because they can barely cut through a tiny stem. It pays to take a few minutes now with the file to ready your tools for the spring.

To sharpen clippers and pruners, hold them firmly or clamp them in place. Using a flat file at the angle of the bevel of the blade, start filing away from you in one direction. With most of the clippers and loppers this will only be done on one side, but you should probably turn them over to the flat side to knock off the burrs on the other side of the blade.

Sharpening a shovel is a similar process. Use a wire brush to knock off any hardened dirt. After clamping the shovel to a bench or securing it in some manner, use a flat file, working with the angle of the bevel on the shovel until roughly the last 1/4 inch of the shovel shines. You can use a heavy sandpaper on the other side to knock off the burrs. After you’re done, rub on a little oil to prevent rust. A great way to store your shovel and other large tools is to keep the blade ready by sticking it into a bucket of sand with a half a quart of lubricating oil added. This will keep tools in place and not allow them to rust.

Ranch Rifle Sight-In

It’s heartbreaking to have the perfect deer or other game animal in your sites, only to miss your shot. Well before hunting season, take your rifle to the shooting range to ensure its accuracy.

Use a benchrest to reduce human error and take your time. Many people prefer setting up the target at 100 yards, although that requires adjusting your scope for the most likely distance of your game. For example, if the deer or elk is typically a couple of hundred yards out (or more), you want to be sure the rifle hits a little higher than the center mark at 100 yards to compensate for the drop in the extra distance.

Once you determine if the bullet hits a little high or low, or left or right, of the center, adjust the scope’s reticle. Your riflescopes will have a windage (left/right) adjustment knob and an elevation (up/down) adjustment knob. These knobs allow you to change bullet impact by using the reticle crosshairs to raise, lower, or move sideways for a true point of aim. If your gun is shooting to the left, you’ll need to adjust windage to the right. If your rifle is shooting high, you’ll need to adjust elevation in the downward direction. It’s rather easy as long as you follow the scope manufacturer’s directions.

After you have sighted in your rifle, you should feel confident that you’re ready to take a solid shot at the game you’re pursuing, but it never hurts to practice. Be sure to zero in once again before you head out to hunt.

Roast Your Own Coffee

If you have a passion for coffee, you can roast your own to your desired level without buying any fancy equipment. All you need is a cast iron frying pan and green coffee beans, often found on-line.

While roasting coffee is easy, it’s best done outside, so set the cast iron pan on a burner on the grill or a camp cookstove. Heat the pan until water readily evaporates on it, then pour in a single layer of beans. Keeping the pan over medium-high heat, continually stir the beans, keeping them moving as the heat darkens them. A paper-like coating burns off of them, but is easily blown away. Once the beans are at your preferred level of darkness, turn off the heat, continuing to stir frequently as the pan is still very hot. Using an oven mitt, remove the pan from the burner and pour the beans into a bowl, swirling them around to bring down the temperature. Stir and blow out the papery husks as the coffee cools. Once completely cool, store beans in a dark container with a lid.

This article is from the spring 2018 issue of The New Pioneer Magazine. Grab your copy at


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