Several months ago, I noted that March 2016 marked my five years of homesteading. Although I thought about homesteading for many years and seriously researched it for more than six months beforehand, the first animal didn’t arrive on the property until March, so it officially became the anniversary date for this crazy life style I’ve started.
To be clear though, I have been gardening most of my life, but not in a homesteading style: to provide food for the table in such a way that it creates a path for food security. I grew a few strawberries, toyed with potatoes and harvested more onions than I could use, but I couldn’t sustain myself for even one week with the food I grew in one season.
But my flowers looked beautiful even if I couldn’t eat them.
On that five-year anniversary, I said I would review my years of homesteading, see what worked, what didn’t work and to take that assessment and plan the near future. You can read that original post here.
The review will appear in a series of posts over the next several months. I’ll discuss everything from gardening to goats, building shelters to chickens and pasture rotation and diseases. I hope my review will not only help me improve my homestead, but help others who are on this path, solve issues they may be having or possibly avoid them all together.
I come from a hard working family, but I’m learning that working wiser is often better than working harder. There’s still plenty of work to do, but working wiser allows more work to get done in a shorter span of time.
The first topic I’ll discus is growing food in the garden.
Nineteen years ago when I moved onto this property, it was 6.3 acres of hayfield bordered on two sides with a thin line of wild trees and bushes. On this wide-open, wind-blown property was the house, four large junipers along the front blocking all views from the front windows, one large maple tree, one large horse chestnut tree, five spruce trees and a row of something that looked like overgrown privet with leaves that turned black each August.
My first goal was to create a wind break from the north winds where I planned to put my garden. It measured about 1/3 of an acre and back then, my dream of having a walk-through garden with benches, bird baths and lovely flowers, shrubs and trees began to take root after I planted a row of white spruce seedlings along the north and west sides of the garden. The house sheltered the south side, leaving only the east winds (which we seldom get) to blow into the garden.
Then I had a child. The work continued in the garden. Then I had another child. More work was completed in the garden. After the third arrived, my time in the garden dwindled. Eventually, things became overgrown and neglected. The birds loved it and occasionally I found a toad jumping out at me during my rare walk through what was once my dream for a beautiful garden.
Without my presence, the white spruce grew tall and soon were taller than me, creating a wonderful wind break. The maple tree, birch tree, oak tree and various shrubs I planted were growing too, creating a solid foundation if I ever wanted to start gardening again.
Unfortunately, I also notices two invasive plants I hadn’t expected taking over the garden. The first was a rugosa rose I had been given for free because it was ‘dead’. I brought it home in the fall of 1997 and planted it, knowing it probably would die right there. But it didn’t, and over the next few years, it grew tall, with long lanky canes that burst into white blossoms each spring. It was an incredible sight and smelt wonderful.
Then in 2010, I saw little rose bushes sprouting up in different places in the garden. I realised it was that rugosa, spreading its roots underground to self-propagate. Never before had I had a rose bush that did this. In 2014, I worked at a garden centre and a customer came in who was trying to eradicate a rose bush from their garden. They described it and I realised it was the same as my rugosa rose bush. She called it the bush from hell. Just when you think you’ve got every root, one more will spring up.
Looking around my garden, I saw dozens of new plants that should not have been there. I knew it was going to be a huge task to rid my garden of this invasive rose bush.
The second invasive plant came in the soil of a hosta that I dug up on the old homestead of an aunt. When I first spotted the morning glory vine the following spring, I thought nothing of it. I had grown morning glories many times. I loved the flower and knew it to be only an annual. This innocent little flower wouldn’t cause any harm.
I was so wrong.
Fast forward a dozen years, and it has taken over the top half of the garden—the area I have yet to reclaimed. It has created a thick mat of leaves and vines that climbs the white spruce trees and wraps around every plant as if it wants to strangle it. I’ve tried mowing it down and pulling it out, but there’s just too much of it. I’ve decided to conquer it one foot at a time. As the vegetable and berry garden creeps west towards the top of the garden, I’ll dig out the morning glory roots and heavily mulch in an attempt to eradicate it. I will need to be vigilant. If it appears in the reclaimed section of the garden, I’ll have to remove it immediately, so it won’t re-establish itself.
When I returned to the garden in 2011, it felt as though I was breaking ground for the first time except the land was no longer just hay field. It was trees, bushes and flowers overgrown with weeds.
That first year, I spent cleaning up the lower half of the garden. I knew I couldn’t do it all at once. It was just too much. I’d never get anything planted. Besides the garden, there were outbuildings to build and pastures to put in. I was just one person who couldn’t do it all.
Instead, I cleaned up a large section and built four raised beds. I planted two blueberry bushes, onions, potatoes and strawberries. The first year was moderately successful. The second year had similar results. Although I wanted to spend more time on the garden, the amount of work that needed to be done to accommodate the animals plus do the daily chores didn’t allow much growth.
In 2014, I worked outside of the home from mid-April to mid-November. Many times I worked six days a week (sometimes seven days a week), ten hours a day at the job located 45 minutes from home. Needless to say, not much was done on the homestead during this time. The growing season of 2015 also found me working outside the home, but with less hours to my schedule. This gave me time to catch-up on all the things that should have been done in 2014 and to complete a few new projects.
However, our herd of goats was growing, taking up more time and resources. Although I wanted to put in bigger gardens, it just didn’t happen in 2015. Sadly, the things I did plant for long-term use—blueberry bushes, hascap bushes, chives, grave vines—were eaten by goats that escaped their pastures. I thought the rhubarb plant would be fine; it’s leaves are poisonous. But a determined little buck that was small enough to squeeze between the page wire fencing visited the plant daily, and within six weeks had eaten all the leaves.
Apparently, little nibbles of rhubarb leaves are not poisonous to goat kids.
This year, I fenced off the four raised beds and established the gardens again. I moved three blueberry bushes from outside of the fence to inside the fence, giving them a chance to grow. Eventually, there will be a fence surrounding the entire garden to keep out stray goats and escapees.
Harvesting this year consisted of onions, tomatoes, thyme, parsley, dill, carrots and peas. My four tomato plants impressed me the most. Besides a few small green ones that never ripened at the end of the season, I picked more than 100 tomatoes.
Apple season has also been successful. I have about 20 bottles of applesauce made from the trees around the property, and I have another two bags to bottle, plus more apples on the trees if I have time. I’ve probably eaten around a hundred since mid-September. I love apples, especially the tart, crisp ones. I can’t buy these in the stores. They don’t seem to grow them anymore.
I took cuttings from three of my favourite trees. Most of the cuttings that root will be planted in other places around the homestead, but several of them will be planted in my future homestead. I’ll plant them next summer, so when I move there in five years, they’ll have already established themselves.
My philosophy in the garden is simple. I don’t use any chemicals for weed or bug control. I haven’t for more than 16 years. I dig out weeds and mulch to reduce their growth. The chickens and ducks eat their share of pests, keeping the population down.
Ladybugs abound. These warm days of fall bring them out in herds…or is it flocks…actually a group of ladybugs is called a loveliness of ladybugs. These beautiful creatures can eat up to 5,000 aphids a year. On this property, ladybugs are sacred. No one kills a ladybug.
I buy only seeds that are non-GMO. I prefer heritage seeds. Some of my favourite places to buy them include Annapolis Seed, Heritage Harvest Seed and Hope Seed. [The full list with links is in the right margin.]
Things I’d do differently if I knew what I know now:
- From the very beginning, focus more on the garden than the animals. Return from plants is quicker than it is from animals, except for chickens. Once hens start laying at six-months of age, they’ll produce a steady supply of eggs for at least three to four years.
- It costs less to grow plants than it does to buy, house, feed and care for animals. The savings from vet bills alone after a few years will create a wonderful food forest.
- Fence in the garden sooner before the goats realise they love raspberries, blueberries and strawberries.
- Start moderately and continually add to the size of the garden each year.
- Install more rain barrels for free water.
- Build a greenhouse the first year.
- Learn about Permaculture the first year and continue to learn about it.
Things I will do in the next two years in the garden:
- Build a greenhouse and heat it by alternative methods.
- Extend the growing season in the greenhouse from March 1st to December 31st.
- Expand the existing beds into the upper half of the garden.
- Experiment by planting vegetables I’ve not grown before such as turnip, green peppers and lima beans.
- Learn how to harvest seeds from various vegetables. I’ve gathered seeds from flowers for years but never vegetables.
- Fence off the entire garden and make it a goat-free zone.
- Continue to create paths to make it easier to get from one bed to another.
- Install birdhouses and bat houses.
- Install more water barrels.
- Install a drip line for the long gardens to make watering easier.
- Continue to learn about permaculture and other natural methods of gardening that are good for the environment and good for production.
- Attend workshops to learn about permaculture, dry-stone wall construction, cob building and seed saving.
- Eradicate those two pesky weeds: morning glory and rugosa rose.
- Plant more trees. When we moved in, there were about 12 trees on the property. This doesn’t include the east and south side borders which have a thin line of trees (willows, apples, birch, Indian pear) and bushes. Now there are more than 70, a mixture of evergreen and deciduous. Trees absorb tons of water, reducing flooding and soil erosion. They provide shelter from the sun and wind for both me and the animals. They also provide food whether in the form of apples and pears or evergreen leaves for the goats. And they provide homes for wildlife, such as the humming bird, black-capped chickadee, downy woodpecker and blue jay (and Snowflake, the local squirrel).
Well, that’s my review of the gardening aspect of the homestead. I love gardening, and although one day I might not own animals—except for a few hens—I will always have a garden indoors and out. Once you know how to grow your own plants, it’s addictive. Knowing where my food comes from and how it was grown makes me feel confident that it is better for me than anything I could buy at the store. And, in a way, it’s free. It costs more in labour than it does in money, and the more skills you acquire, the less labour is needed.
There is nothing more satisfying than sitting down to a bowl of vegetable soup made with vegetables grown from my garden, seasoned with spices also grown in my yard or kitchen.