The Path to Self-Reliance: Year Three Begins

Spring is in the air, and so is the energy for clearing out, taking stock, and moving in new directions.  It was a short winter here (I’m already declaring it dead and gone, though we’ll have some intermittent frosty nights through March and usually into early April), but one filled with intense reflection and learning.

When we started down this road to more food self-sufficiency, a few folks from around these parts told us that it had taken them about five years to get there.  I was heartened, but also longed for some detail.  Why five years?  What were the steps?  Where should I start?  What did it feel like along the way?  What did eating from your own property year round look like? And what did self-sufficient in food really mean?

My blogging has shifted over the last couple of years to focus more on sharing my anwers to these questions, and as my third year begins, I’m realizing how much we’ve changed over that time.  The problem is, food habits aren’t the only things that have been impacted, and I’ve been feeling like the food-focus of the blog is too restrictive.  Though I’m nervous about making changes here too, the truth is that seeking a different, more holistic, balanced, and sane life is a big part of why people are taking on their food production, and pulling a fragment of my life out for examination outside of its true context just doesn’t make sense to me anymore.  So my blog posts may be shifting a little too, over the months to come.  There’s been lots going on outside of the garden this year!

Recapping the Journey

For those who are interested in where we’ve been so far, here are the essentials.  We were more or less newbie gardeners when we moved in to our lovely house on its deer-fenced 1/2 acre.  Our property was hugely appealing because it came with mature apple trees and lots of berry bushes.  It had a beautiful English country-style ornamental garden, and what we thought was lots of space.

We spent the first year getting to know the place, making lists of what we wanted to change. We got some horse and chicken manure, renovated a couple of empty flower beds for vegetables, and tried to keep up with the weeding and pruning.  We bought a weed-wacker, but have no lawn.  I grew as much as I could in the beds that were here, and learned a TON about growing vegetables.  There were many failures to learn from, but enough successes to be inspired to do even more the next year.  We planted a couple of cherry trees.

Last year, year 2, was a big year for taking charge of the garden and starting to make it work better for us and our needs.  We rebuilt the crumbling raised beds, built a chicken coop and run, and raised our current layer flock from chicks. We planted a couple of plum trees, and officially designated a mini orchard area.  I got a handle on starting seeds in the greenhouse on a heat mat, and later moved to soil blocks.  The vegetable garden last year produced very well, although there were still a few failures and much to learn.  I produced a lot of food through the spring, summer, and early fall, and did much more preserving.  But my winter garden didn’t come to much (for some obvious reasons, like not enough chicken protection and planting too late!), so that will be one of the main focuses this time around.

Year 3:

Yarnsalad is still with us, a staple part of our family for another few months it seems.  She’s sad to be away from her Sweety, but it’s hard not to be distracted by all the planting that’s beginning, the chicken tv, the pruning and re-organizing of the garden.  She’s been such a helpful support for us, in fact, that I’ve been wondering what on earth I’ll do next year!  I’ll have to go looking for a WOOFER!  On the other hand, thanks to her baking and determination to learn how to make the best bread possible, we’ve all put on a few pounds and are heading into spring with vows to lighten the diet for a little while. 🙂

I’m taking stock of the pantry and our eating habits over the winter, and am incorporating these lessons into the garden planning ahead.  The onion harvest lasted into early January, and I have a couple of leeks left in the garden.  Last year I started more than 300 onion seeds, but the germination was spotty.  This year we’ve done almost 500 (plus three times as many leeks and a whole pile of scallions for spring), and I’m watching the germination in case I need to start some more.

The garlic is storing well, and there are still lots of cans of tomato and apple sauce, sauerkraut, and dill pickles.  Skipper has declared that he’s taking over 2012 paste tomato production (that’s a story for another post), and I want more bread and butter pickles and possibly a few more pickled beets next year.

One of the biggest question marks for me last summer was how much of the produce to freeze for winter.  I had excess spinach, leeks, kale, broccoli, beans, etc, which I knew many folks blanch and freeze for later use.  But many of these things grow a second crop through the fall and into winter, so I wasn’t sure whether freezing the first crop’s surplus was necessary.  Turns out it would have been great.  I did blanch and freeze some of the green bean bounty, and it’s been a treat to pull something fresh and different out to go with the root veg and cabbage from time to time.  And for a variety of reasons, the winter harvest here hasn’t been as abundant as it might be; it would have been awesome to have more frozen greens, etc to supplement.  So that’s a lesson I’ll be taking action on in the months to come.

The biggest shift for us at the end of the season last year and over the winter here was again getting comfortable making this space work for us, even if it means radical changes to the garden we inherited.  Much of the new-garden resource base out there is targeted at suburbanites with flat, empty lawns.  That’s not us!  And it’s always a big internal battle for me to not worry about resale value and whether to move.  I love it here, and we’re ready to commit to being here long enough to transform the property in our image…I think.

We’ve started to take down a major tree to provide more light to the growing beds.  We’ve taken out some of the grape vines, are thinking about taking down the kiwi, in favour of more of the foods that we do eat and want to prioritize, like hops and berries and asparagus.  Next up is taking out a section of shrubs to put in what will likely be the last of the veggie beds.  This should take me up to about 1000 square feet of planting space, which is workable long-term for the two of us.  It’s just that because of our odd garden layout, those beds had to be tucked around the property in a variety of places, rather than in just a big rectangle.

A challenge for this year or next will be putting back in something we’ve been taking out: flowers!  I really notice the difference that a huge area of pollinating and beneficial bird and insect attracting flowers and shrubs makes to the life and productivity of the garden.  Taking out the ornamentals to make room for the veggies has been the first priority, but once the veggie infrastructure is set, I’ll be looking for ways and places to create manageable flower beds.  Next year, we’ll likely tackle the side garden, too.

So that’s where we are on our journey so far!  Much more to come: a photo tour! Our reflections on life with livestock on a small scale, the decision to homestead rather than farm, and my thoughts and learnings on gardening with my intuition, as part of an integrated ecosystem.  Now all I need is more hours in the day (hours, that, as the Skipper added, no one else knows about!).