The Bookshelf

Here I'm recommending the most useful books that help us Live the Frugal Life, with a thumbnail of commentary/review.  While I can strongly recommend every single title listed below from personal experience, there are plenty of books that I (still!) haven't read.  Some subjects, such as cooking and gardening, generate so many titles that I couldn't possible survey even a small percentage of what's out there.  Still, these are the books that nudged me in the direction of backyard homesteading and towards the life we're now making. Also listed are those reference books I find myself returning to again and again for more information.  I may add more titles as I discover new ones worthy of mention.

Essential Reading
The Complete Tightwad  Gazette - Still the best all-around introduction to both the nitty-gritty practicalities as well as the psychology of frugality. Well worth a re-read every year or so. If you're new to frugality, just buy your own (used) copy. You'll do it eventually anyway.

Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front- This book pretty much sums up all the reasons I do what I do, and all the motivations for the things I want to put into place.  A penetrating combination of grim news about climate change, peak oil, and recession mixed with social justice, compassion, insight, optimism and elbow grease.  Can't recommend it highly enough.

Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture - Not particularly heavy on the how-to details, but this is a fascinating overview of families who are changing their fundamental relationship to a consumer culture, and doing it from home, mostly on very modest budgets.  The author specifically looked for those with secular motivations for their identification as homemakers.

This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader - An early voice in the new homesteading movement.  Thoughtful and revealing commentary on one woman's struggle to feed herself from an upstate New York backyard.

The Omnivore's Dilemma - Critical and thoughtful overview of the industrial food system of the US, and the small-scale alternatives that exist at the margins.  I don't agree with Pollan's conclusion that there's currently no viable alternative to industrial food for just about all of us, but this is still the most important work on the state of our food system.

Preparedness, Homesteading, DIY
Just in Case: How to be Self-Sufficient when the Unexpected Happens - Whether you believe in peak oil, worry about economic issues or bird flu, or only want to prepare for natural disasters, this book is for you.  Excellent guidance on how to prepare for any contingency that might leave your family without a power supply, communication, access to medical care, or the ability to get to the supermarket.  Solid, no-nonsense approach.

Toolbox for Sustainable City Living - Great resource for those comfortable with DIY, hand tools, and ready to roll up their sleeves and dive into some very cool projects.  Geared to urbanites, but useful for the rest of us too.

The Humanure Handbook: A Guide to Composting Human Manure - While I haven't put a humanure system into practice for our homestead, I'm going to recommend this book anyway.  It's a valuable resource, even if like us, you face serious obstacles to using such a system.  You can download a free copy here.

The Small-Scale Poultry Flock: An All-Natural Approach to Raising Chickens and Other Fowl - This is by far the best book on small-scale poultry out there.  Covers chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese and guinea fowl at the backyard to small acreage scales.  This is the big picture, integrated approach that considers poultry as partners in maintaining the health and fertility of soil, animals, and humans.  Highly recommended.

The Alaskan Bootlegger's Bible - Alcohol.  You want some, don't you?  Better to make your own from your homegrown grapes, apples, pears, berries, or whatever you've got.  Here's how to do it.  The recipes for stronger spirits are, of course, provided for entertainment purposes only.  Uproariously funny at times.

Cider, Hard and Sweet: History, Traditions, and Making Your Own - More detail than you might need if you have only one or two apple trees and just want sweet cider.  But if you are serious about cider, this is a great reference book.

Natural Beekeeping: Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture - My survey of beekeeping books is far from comprehensive, but this is the best one I've found for those who don't want to dose their bees with chemical controls.  Fine for beginners with just a hive or two, but also offers techniques suitable for larger scale apiaries.

Stalking The Wild Asparagus - The granddaddy of foraging for wild edibles, this book should be on every homesteader's or wannabe homesteader's bookshelf.  We should all be eating what's out there, free for the picking as much as we can.

The Uses of Wild Plants: Using and Growing the Wild Plants of the United States and Canada - Much broader in scope than Stalking the Wild Asparagus, this book gives impressive detail on the non-culinary uses of wild plants.  Functions such as medicine, fiber, dye, insect repellent, glue, cleaning agent, tool making, compost activation, kindling material, and many others are discussed.  Oh, and a lot of these "wild" plants are perfectly susceptible to domestication.  You could choose to include them in your landscape if you wish.

The Resilient Gardener - I'm adding this title in this section, instead of the next section, because the information in this book is really about how to dial in a degree of self-sufficiency in food production that is unequaled in any other book pertaining to temperate climates.  Not a book for gardeners just getting their feet wet, but for those who want to get serious about feeding themselves, come what may.  My review provides more detail.


Four-Season Harvest - Ground-breaking work (ha ha!) that shows how to eat year-round from your garden, even if you live in Maine, as the author does.  Unheated greenhouses are his specialty, but a variety of season extension techniques are explained.  The planting date tables are invaluable and alone worth the price of the book.

Gaia's Garden - I know: the title is a turnoff.  It made me avoid the book for the better part of a year, despite numerous recommendations.  But this is the best introduction to Permaculture concepts that I know of. And they're scaled down to and made practical for a typical residential lot.  If you want to feed yourself from your backyard, read this book.

Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World - If you think you have a grasp of soil issues or ecology but don't know much about fungi, this book will leave you gobsmacked.  Well worth the cover-to-cover read, even if you don't enjoy edible mushrooms and have no desire to grow them.  You want some in your garden, trust me.

The Apple Grower: Guide for the Organic Orchardist - This might be overkill for those who just want one or two apple trees, but it's well worth at least checking out of the library no matter how few your trees.  Covers just about everything there is to know about apples and growing them at a commercial (not industrial) scale. 

Apples - This is the book to read when you're selecting an apple cultivar to plant in your backyard.  Also good if you're shopping around for scion wood.  Short but evocative descriptions and lovely illustrations of about 100 different apple varieties.


How to Cook Everything Vegetarian: Simple Meatless Recipes for Great Food - Great guide for cooks with little experience but broad tastes.  Mainly centers on dishes familiar to Americans, but includes "ethnic" flavors too.  Really some good ideas on how to make simple and cheap ingredients taste great.  Wide range of vegetable preparation covered.

Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian - Best multi-ethnic vegetarian cookbook I know of.  Heavy emphasis on pan-Asian and Indian dishes, but the influences here are global.  A few quick yeasted bread recipes are included, and the grains section is great.  A lot of recipes, and they're well written and tested.

The New Best Recipe - Intensively tested and perfected recipes for 1000 of America's favorite dishes.  The testing notes about where things went wrong and how the recipes were developed will provide you a hefty amount of culinary knowledge.  This is a good place to start if you have little confidence in the kitchen.

The River Cottage Cookbook - Obvious British orientation, but don't let that dismay you.  Focuses on good home cooked meals which make the most of garden produce.  Best for cooks beyond the novice stage.

The River Cottage Meat Book - Interesting, sometimes wry, but never flippant commentary on the ethics of meat consumption, excellent recipes for both standard roasts, as well as nose to tail eating, including offal dishes.  While the recipes can be somewhat elaborate, they're never too complicated or fancy for fancy's sake.  Covers game as well.

Simply in Season - Indispensable guide for those who want to grow what they eat, and eat what they grow.  These aren't fancy dishes, but the seasonally arranged recipes allow plenty of room for you to dress them up or down.  Best book I know of to help you eat from a productive garden or root cellar.


The Bread Baker's Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread - The most comprehensive introduction to the craft and science of bread baking that I've seen.  Incredibly detailed and yet accessible and not overwhelming.  Suitable for both rank beginners and fairly accomplished bakers.  Awesome recipes!

The Cheese Board: Collective Works - Useful for those who want to work with sourdough starters, and any who know and love the Cheese Board in Berkeley, California.  Every single recipe of theirs is included in this book.  The English muffins are to die for!

Artisan Baking - Selected and amazing breads from some of the best bread bakeries in the US.  I wouldn't recommend it for complete beginners, but for those with a year or two of experience under their belts.

Baking with Julia - Child, that is.  Covers both chemical and yeast leavened baked goods, breads, cakes, cookies, etc.  Excellent detail and guidance for those who want or need it.  Some really great recipes here, including a few yeasted breads that can be mixed and baked the same day.  Good for all experience levels.

Food preservation 

Ball Blue Book of Preserving - The essential guide to canning.  Get the most recent edition, follow the directions to the letter, and never can anything from memory.  Open the book every time and make sure.  But remember that canning destroys a lot of nutrients and often adds a lot of sugar.  So check out the other books listed here for other methods of preservation.

Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods - Great introduction to the world of lacto-fermented foods.  If you've only ever had store-bought sauerkraut, you still have a world of flavors to explore.  Lacto-fermentation is not only low-energy food preservation, it's the only method that makes more nutrients available to us when compared to foods in their raw state.

Independence Days: A Guide to Sustainable Food Storage & Preservation - Both the how's and the why's are thoroughly detailed in this extremely inspirational book on various methods of food preservation. Highly motivating, as are all Sharon's books.  General methods and a few specific recipes included.

Root Cellaring - This book covers everything you need to know to store fruits and vegetables for a few months without processing or refrigeration.  What varieties to grow, how and when to harvest, and how to build a root cellar or clamp in whatever space you have available.  Many different cellar designs are well explained and illustrated.

Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning - Another book specializing in low-energy food preservation.  This one relies on traditional methods of preservation from Europe, most of which would make the USDA's toes curl.  It covers more preservation methods than Root Cellaring, but it doesn't show you how to build a cellar.  Very interesting reading.

Home Sausage Making - Solid guidance for those first shaky forays into the world of charcuterie.  All you need to know to prepare fresh sausages at home, safely. 

Stocking Up - One of the earliest and best guides to a variety of food preservation techniques.  Well worth including in your library, but refer to more recent publications for guidelines on canning times/pressures.

Cookbooks to help you cope with food gluts

The Bean Bible: A Legumaniac's Guide To Lentils, Peas, And Every Edible Bean On The Planet! - Cheap, healthy, easy to grow and store.  Yet beans are too often dismissed as boring poverty fare.  Here's a guide for really enjoying them (yes, really!) instead of enduring them.  Oh, and my personal tip is to prepare them in a slow cooker - foolproof and perfectly cooked every time.

The Good Egg - Once you start your backyard flock of layers, you're going to be eating a lot more eggs.  Here's your guide to doing so without monotony. 

The Compleat Squash - A beautiful and detailed guide to selecting which variety of squash you might want to grow - and there are more than you might guess.  Plenty of reliable recipes to help you use up the harvest too.

One Potato, Two Potato - An impressive number of enticing recipes built around America's favorite vegetable, plus some for sweet potatoes.  Some of these are sure to become favorites, and the recipes run the gamut from simple to a little fancy.  Dessert recipes too.

Fig Heaven - Okay, so maybe not too many of you have to deal with a glut of figs.  I hope to one day, and this collection of recipes is going to help.  Lots of luscious and interesting ideas here.

Further food for thought

Better Off - What amount of money, labor, technology, and community makes us happiest?   The grad-student author sets out to find the best balance for himself and his new family.  Much food for deep thought here for those wondering about alternatives to the rat race.

Pert near anything written by Gene Logsdon.  If you don't know his writing, The Contrary Farmer is one of my favorites, and a great place to start.  Along with Wendell Berry, Logsdon is a titan of American agrarian life.

A Nation of Farmers: Defeating the Food Crisis on American Soil - We're facing multiple calamities in the next few decades - peak oil, climate change, and a massive restructuring of the global economy.  Backyard gardening might just save the world, if anything can.  Sound far-fetched?  Read this and then tell me if you really disagree. 

The Long Emergency - Recommended with serious reservations, this book is big on scare tactics and light on practical suggestions.  Although it is well researched and accurate, there's little here that is constructive or likely to lead to any positive outcome.  If you need fear as a motivator, this book is for you, but don't let yourself or those close to you be paralyzed by what's presented here.

A Handmade Life: In Search of Simplicity - Almost a work of philosophy, this is a beautiful meditation on our society, and the degree to which it is possible to live (right here, right now) differently than mainstream consumerist culture would have us live. 

Recommended viewing

A Farm for the Future - You can watch this BBC show for free.  Rebecca Hosking returns to her family's Devon farm after the oil price shock of 2008 and starts asking questions about how the farm can survive if (when) prices return to that level.  Fascinating, gorgeous, sobering, inspiring, and highly recommended.

The River Cottage Series - Most episodes of these multiple series can be watched free on Factual TV.  I recommend you watch an episode or two after a hard day's work over the course of a few weeks. Not every episode will teach you something applicable for your situation, but there's always something inspiring to think about.

Food, Inc. - A cinematic follow on to Fast Food Nation and Omnivore's Dilemma, this movie will make you re-evaluate what you're eating, and the industrial food system of the US. 

A Crude Awakening - The Oil Crash - A cinematic version of The Long Emergency with smatterings from several other peak oil titles.  The intro is one of the worst I've ever seen, but it does get better and is worth watching. 

No-Knead Bread - These short videos on the no-knead method permanently altered my approach to bread baking.  Everything you need to know to get started on the easiest bread recipe ever is covered in these free clips.  I've tweaked the recipe slightly over the last few years, but this will have you baking great bread in no time.

Victorian Farm - This BBC series is mostly just fascinating entertainment for the homesteading/garden geek crowd. But there are a few gleanable nuggets in there as well.  Search for the title on youtube, and you'll be able to watch the lengthy series in short segments.

A Century of Challenges - You'll have to pay for access to this presentation, but once you do you can watch it as often as you like, and it's well worth the price in my opinion.  This is the clearest and most comprehensive explanation I've seen on why the global economic crisis should be our most immediate concern - ahead of peak oil and climate change.  "If you don't negotiate the short term, you don't have any long term to worry about."

Just because recommendations

Pig Perfect: Encounters with Remarkable Swine and Some Great Ways to Cook Them - Not especially critical for the backyard homesteader, unless you plan to raise a few hogs.  But delightful reading nonetheless. Don't read this when you're hungry.

Want to suggest a book you think I'd like to read?  Please let me know in the comments!


Epidimos said...

you should look into Alton Brown, Good Eats. Very cool.

You should also e-mail me because I would love to talk to you/demand you answer my various questions! if you are at all able.


Gill said...

I live in Derbyshire, England and have been a smallholder on 2 acres for 30 years now. the books I return to again and again are John Seymour's Self Sufficiency and Carla Emery's Old Fashioned Recipe Book. I too enjoy reading Hugh F-T.We grow organically, learning all the time. I am currently looking into how to preserve foods without the use of electicity at any stage. have enjoyed reading your pages and wish you all the luck in the world finding your piece land.

Jan said...

Hi Kate. I live in the Blue Mountains, about 50 kms west of Sydney, Australia. Our house is on about 1.3 hectares and surrounded by bush. I love gardening - my garden is mostly Australian native plants & vegetables this week I just got 6 hens ("chooks", we call them). I share your passion for living off the land & I love making new things from old. My son made a "humanure" portable outhouse after reading the book you refer to. It was used at his friends wedding in January,which was held on someone's bush property. The resulting compost looks pretty good.

Kate said...

Wow! I stumbled across your site looking for recipes to use up some of my chard and found a kindred spirit. I've also been looking into homesteading on a residential plot and doing so little bits at a time. Thank you for your Bookshelf recommendations. There are so many books out there it is nice to get real recommendations (and accurate descriptions). Thank you for the resource. - Another Kate