The Homestead Garden

This is our first year where we had the purpose of homesteading as a driving force behind our gardening, and it’s been quite a learning experience.  I’ve taken far more away from this growing season than I expected to.  It’s not a year of grand revelation, but I have certainly taken a few things away from the whole thing.

Here’s a list of what I’ve taken away from this year’s growing season so far:

1) We didn’t plant enough food.  If we want to be self-sufficient, we are going to have to grow significantly more food in the coming years.  I’m thinking that we will have to at least triple our growing efforts in the future.  I don’t think that next year we will definitely triple the size of the garden, we might need to give ourselves some time to ease into a larger production.  But we will definitely be expanding next year.  I also need to take better notes of how much we grew of each plant so that I know what is enough and what is not.

Onions.  In the past I would never have used this many in a year, but now that I’m cooking from scratch, I’m not sure this will be enough!

2) Pruning is vital to good crop production. I’m not referring to pruning plants in the garden.  I know that I can do that, but it’s not something I’ve played around with yet.  But pruning fruit trees is very important to receiving a good harvest.  Our cherry tree did so well after Scott cut back a significant portion of the tree in late winter.  But that was a young tree.  The apple trees are older and were far more overgrown, and they needed a lot of love.  If I think about the apples from last year compared to the ones from this year, I can see two things that are different.  One, the fruit is bigger, and two there is less insect damage.  Sure, the trees are having a few issues as they adjust to the loss of limbs, but I can see that what we harvest will be better in the years to come.

Peaches!  We live in this thin band of Zone 5 where peaches can actually grow!  Scott only did a bit of pruning to these, but we have seen lots of results from pruning on the other fruit trees as well.

It’s not just the fruit trees that need upkeep though.  Our raspberries have really struggled so far this year.  I have been unable to find enough time to thin them out and to remove old canes, and the berries have suffered because of it.  I am hoping to be able to find a few days yet this summer where I can just dig everything up and sort of begin again.  I’m not talking about ditching all of our berry plants, just digging, separating, and replanting with more space, and planting in more convenient places.  When I did find time to thin out a few of our raspberries, I notice a big difference in the fruit production afterwards.  The takeaway from all of this is that we will be even more diligent about pruning in future years.

3) Mulch is the best thing you can possibly do for your garden.  Okay, so I already knew this about mulch.  If I hadn’t known that, we may not have even had a garden this year.  We knew this was going to be a busy year for us since there is still so much work to be done around here after the move and because we had a baby right as gardening season began.  I knew this year would be hard.  I knew we could skip the garden if we really wanted to, but I’m glad we didn’t.  I have honestly not watered our garden at all this year.  Aside from watering a few transplants the day they were planted, the only water that went into the main garden was from rain and the beans got some half-empty bottles of water after a party.  The pumpkin patch only got rain, nothing else.

And weeding has been a breeze.  We’ve had an interesting summer with so much to be done around here…four kids and a new baby, and the most humid and buggy summer of my life that I can recall…the garden has been neglected.  I occasionally go into the garden to check on the food, and when the humidity and the bugs aren’t bad or if there is no rush to be somewhere, I’ll spend an hour pulling weeds.  But the amazing part is that it’s really easy.  I can weed a large, neglected area in an hour because the mulch keeps the ground moist which makes pulling the weeds really easy.  And the weeds don’t get so deeply embedded into the underlying soil because the mulch keeps them near the surface.

4) If your basic mulch just isn’t cutting it, cardboard works wonders.  Short on time and resources, we did not get as much mulch down as I would have liked.  It didn’t take long for areas that were especially overgrown from the previous owners to become overgrow once again.  I have not been able to tackle the entire garden yet, but in the 1/4 of the garden where I did get cardboard down between rows, there are almost no weeds to be pulled.  I’d like to get the remainder of the garden mulched with cardboard before winter rolls around, but I know that it may not happen.

The main garden may not look fantastic, but that’s because we’ve been avoiding it.  The mosquitoes have been awful!  You can see on the left of the picture that there are few weeds, but mostly just mulch with plants in between.  The other half of the garden, well, you can’t tell what’s going on!  The weeds took over and I never got the cardboard laid down.  The picture doesn’t do it justice, but there’s a big difference in the two halves.  Either way, mulch has made weeding a breeze (as long as the mosquitoes stay away!).

5) Trellises and staking make a huge difference in how efficiently you can use your garden space.  Yes, I wrote a post about this one before.  Staking and trellises are so important to using your garden space efficiently.  We have a large yard, but that doesn’t mean I want to have an enormous garden or have to walk all over the place to harvest our food.  I want to think about the long-term, and I can see that keeping the garden consolidated and working efficiently.  We’ll still need to expand significantly, but next year I want to have even more trellises in our garden.  In the past I have not staked our tomatillos, but I think in the future I will.  We had the “problem” of lots and lots and LOTS of volunteer tomato and tomatillo plants this year, and we’ve had to pull a lot of them because they were beginning to choke out plants we intentionally planted.  We still have an abundance of plants growing in places we did not put them, and I need to get on top of staking them so that the other plants have more room to breath.

Okay, so it’s a bit hard to tell what’s going on, but the tomato plants are trellised up here into tow rows.  I can walk between the two sets of white-tipped t-posts.  If we hadn’t trellised, I couldn’t get the tomatoes from the middle of the rows.

6) Don’t underestimate the space it takes for a plant to grow.  Square foot gardening is great, and I’ve found out that a lot of plants can be planted much closer together than the seed packets recommend.  However, some plants just take up a lot of space.  Plant your carrots and onions and peas close together because they will still be easy to pick.  Tomatoes need a lot of room.  Herbs and lettuce will get harvested throughout the growing season, so they can be planted intensely, but tomatoes need a lot of room even if they are staked or trellised.  Did I mention that tomatoes need a lot of room?

This is what happens when you have tomatoes that you don’t trellis, or stake!  You can’t weed, because you can’t see what’s going on, the fruit rests on the ground, and you have to dig for your tomatoes!  I should have dug up some of these volunteers to give them more space.  It would have made harvest much easier on me!

7) We need to meal plan.  So this one might sound a little weird, but it ties in with #1.  We planted vegetables we knew we would eat because we’ve tried growing some things in the past only to find out that we don’t really like those foods.  We just don’t like some veggies.  However, if we had a meal plan or kept track of our meal plans from over the course of a year, I would have a much better idea of what foods we should be growing and how much we should grow of each particular food.   We make a lot of homemade pizza, so having enough appropriate tomato sauces on hand would be very helpful, and this year’s tomato harvest should give me an idea of what the best varieties of tomatoes and how many plants we will need in the future.  I also love making soups in winter, so having potatoes, carrots and celery on hand to get us through the cold months would make a big impact on our budget in the long run, even if they are some of the less expensive veggies you can buy.

8) We need a pressure canner.  Growing all of this food is great, and I’m happy to have it, but without a pressure canner, everything needs to be frozen.  And if we want to be more self-sufficient, then I don’t want to rely so heavily on a freezer.

Okay, so the freezer isn’t full.  Yet.  But it will be in the next few days.  There’s the equivalent to 3 full shelves worth of veggies in there, plus things that I couldn’t can.  (I also have food from the grocery store for right now.)
9) Permaculture is the way to go.  Permanent agriculture or “permaculture” is one of the best ways for us to add to our yearly food production.  We can have plants (such as fruit trees) provide us with some of the food to get us through the year, and there is little work that needs to be done in order for that food to grow.  We’ll need to do some pruning on a yearly basis, and you still need to look out for bugs and disease, but for the most part, you just have to wait for the fruit to be ripe for picking.  One thing I may have mentioned in the past is that animals can be a part of your permaculture.  Let them clean up and fertilize for you when possible.  Some chickens scratch and can till a whole garden for you given enough time.

Grapes are a nice snack for the kids and a low maintenance plant (if you aren’t running a vineyard) that comes back year after year.

Our watermelon patch didn’t go quite as hoped.  We have some vines growing, but it doesn’t look like they will fruit.  Peanut’s garden grew two stalks of corn and a couple of flowers, but that area was just too buggy to tend to.  The grass didn’t get cut like planned.  Now we know that the ground back there is too wet.  The bugs like the area too much for us to spend time in there.  Next year we can try a new plot of land.  We witnessed first hand how corn hates having it’s roots damp, but the sunflowers don’t mind.  Our celery experiment failed, so next year we will try something different.  Volunteer plants are a blessing, but if they pop up in a place that really does not work for me, then I will move them when needed.

This whole year has been an experiment. I have learned a lot and now know what we will need to do next year to get an even larger harvest.  We will have to expand a lot, and you can bet that we will be using mulch to do it.  We will have to track the meals that we eat so that next year we can plant more of the appropriate foods and hopefully get another step closer to becoming more independent on our food growing journey.  As we head into the full swing of harvest season, I will be sure to note where we fell short on planting so that next year we can do better.

I tried finding out what good amounts of foods were to grow for our family of 7, but nobody had the answers.  I think that’s because each family is unique, and it will depend on what your family likes to eat the most of.  If you want to know what to grow and how much of it next spring, start tracking what your family is eating starting now, how many people are eating what foods, and how often they are eating it.

Well, that about sums it up.  What have you learned in your garden this year?  Did you try any foods that you will or won’t be planting again?  What were your successes and what were failures?  I’d like to hear about what worked for you and what didn’t!  My peas did fantastic, but only half of my bean plants came up…I think the rabbits got them.  I had wanted to put up a fence, but it turns out that it was a good thing we didn’t get one put up because it would have had to be re-done since we will be expanding!  Happy Harvesting!






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