Friday, 23 April 2010

A Homestead in Progress: Year Four

by Kate
Living The Frugal Life

I'm well into the heavy spring workload in pursuit of making our 2/3 acre residential lot a functioning homestead.  This is also the beginning of the fourth year of this pursuit overall.  It's been a lot of work over the last three years, and I have to remind myself that as much as there is left on my list of things to do, we've also made progress.  On the other hand, I'm quite conscious these days that this property will never be something Martha Stewart would be proud of.  This is working land, not a showpiece.  I'm often painfully aware of the mistakes we've made, the refinements that have been necessary, and the incremental quality of our progress.  We didn't have a master plan when we started changing things.  And if we had, it wouldn't have been a very good one.  Often we could only see one step that made good sense at a given time.  We've had to try things with imperfect knowledge, watch, get results, go back to the drawing board, and put in more work the next year to revise what we'd done.  Frankly, we just didn't really know what we were doing sometimes.

I want to share some of our progress, some of the things we've done wrong, and some of the refinements we've made over the last three years.  I'm sure some of you are just starting out on this path, or even still thinking of beginning to homestead.  You might be tempted to take on too much all at once, or hold impossibly high standards for what you will achieve in the next 12 months.  Or, you might be the type that tells yourself it will be too much work to even try, that it will take too much money or too many years to return any benefit.  I hope that I can provide an example that will help those of you in either camp.  We haven't made perfect choices, but they've still paid off.

Garden design - I think this year we may finally have a good layout for the large garden bed that holds most of our annual crop plants.  It's always been my call how the garden was laid out, and I chose bad designs the last three years.  Basically, we now have an off-center main path with long rows to one side, short rows to the other, and perennial herbs or self-seeding flowers at the border-end of each path and bed.  We lasagna mulched the perimeter to get a handle on the weeds that cropped up right at the fence line year after year, and will lasagna mulch each pathway for the same purpose.  We resolved that this would be the last year we tilled the soil, so the paths and beds we arranged this year will be permanent.  And we're finally getting serious about amending our clay soil with plenty of compost.  My tip to beginning gardeners is: don't put comfrey in the corners of your garden until you know for sure that your garden won't eventually expand beyond those corners.  The challenge for me this year is to use the garden space we've cleared more effectively and work on better season extension to increase the amount of food we produce for ourselves.

Bees - We just started with bees this year, and it's been a fiasco so far.  I did a lot of work, a lot of learning, and spent a good deal of money for this project.  It's not at all clear we'll see much success with it.  I just want to throw this out there, because we can do all the right things sometimes, and nature shows her hand last. We're dealing with this right now.  Or you can make one mistake and watch all your efforts fizzle.  It doesn't happen often, but that's homesteading.  We may succeed with the bees or we may not.  Don't ever think you're the only one that tries something and fails at it.  Try, try again, or move on to another area that holds more promise.

Perennial edibles - This is one area where I wish we'd gotten our act together sooner, because it would mean that we'd be harvesting that much sooner.  A few years of intensive annual gardening more than suffices to show the merits of perennials, which you need plant only once and then harvest for many years.  The drawback is that most trees and berries need some time to mature before giving a good crop.   If you're new to the idea of homesteading, think long term as early as you possibly can.  Start planting your perennials sooner rather than later.  Just think the locations through carefully, keeping in mind that bushes and trees will get bigger over time.  Don't situate them such that they shade important areas needed for annual crops as they grow.  If your space is limited, focus on dwarf fruit trees and container gardening in areas where the soil has been paved or built over.  Some perennial fruits trees, such as figs, do fine in large containers.

Chickens - Chickens have been called the "gateway livestock" because they lead to harder stuff.  I'd say that's accurate.  Chickens are easy-peasy animals to maintain, and they give you a return on your efforts very quickly, especially laying hens.  We've used the deep litter method to keep hens in our shed over the winter months, which creates an excellent material for amending the soil.  Most of the year our tiny laying flock of just four hens is kept in a rotational grazing system.  I move them daily to give them fresh forage, and no part of our property is damaged by an excessive build-up of manure.  On the contrary, their manure is spread around the outside of the garden, lightly fertilizing the soil about once per month.  The hens also make me see value (as feed) in weeds and insect pests, and help me control both.  I would highly recommend chickens to any aspiring homesteader.  They're easier than you think and have many benefits.  We didn't get everything perfectly right when we built our mobile coop and pen.  But it worked well enough to keep the hens happy, healthy, and safe from predators, and we've made small tweaks with the design over the last two years.

Worm bins - This is the livestock for those who can't really have livestock.  While they are admittedly less charming than chickens, less fascinating than bees, and don't yield anything as impressive as meat, dairy, eggs or honey, compost worms nonetheless provide a valuable product and help close some resource-waste loops.  Worm castings and worm bin "tea" are about the best plant foods on the planet.  Having that sort of resource at your disposal is invaluable when you plan to raise your own food, especially if you live in an area where the soil was never prime farmland.  Compost worms can also thrive on neglect for weeks at a time, a very handy attribute for homesteaders busy with a thousand other projects.

Edible landscaping - With less than an acre to work with, we need to use every square inch of space to the best effect.  We're in the process of eradicating more and more of our lawn this year.  And it's been a challenge to figure out what to do in the deep shade of the trees that shade our house in summer.  Even after three years of work and a mere 2/3 acre to work with, we still haven't made use of all the space available to us.  We've ripped out forsythia and replaced it with elderberry bushes.  We've cut down ornamental trees and replaced them with pears and blueberries.  We're looking at training our pole beans up the fence that encloses our yard this year.  We're attempting a permaculture guild under the mature apple tree this year to include blackcurrants and medicinal herbs.  Edible landscaping is definitely a state of mind and a work in progress.  My advice, again, is to make haste slowly.  Do the things that are obvious first, and mull the more difficult areas until you see what can be done.

Infrastructure - I count some of our big projects in this category; the sort that take extra effort above and beyond the annual routine of dealing with the garden and food preservation.  And yes, that extra effort is always a struggle; though the results so far have been worth it.  We've built a rocket stove for low-energy, off-grid cooking.  Just a few months ago we finished a root cellar, which we think will allow us to cure meats all through the summer, and definitely will allow for low-energy preservation of whole foods through the fall and winter months.  But I also consider the fruit trees, the laying hens, and all the perennial edibles to fall into the "infrastructure" category too.  These are the physical "tools" that will help us to live well in a low-energy and/or low-income future.  Of course, some infrastructure is as easy to acquire as plunking down your hard-earned money.  Our garden tools, many reference books, and pressure canner fall into the infrastructure category too.

Skills - I don't think it would present a fair picture of homesteading if I didn't mention the acquisition of skills.  I doubt that any two homesteaders end up with exactly the same skill set, but learning to do things, make things, repair things and taking the initiative to come up with solutions to problems is part and parcel with a homesteading way of life.  With a background in professional cooking, I was already a good home cook, and quite accustomed to cooking most of our meals from scratch before I ever dreamt of homesteading.  It was therefore a natural extension of my enjoyment of cooking to figure out bread baking, and various methods of food preservation.  Sewing, on the other hand, is a monumental ordeal for me.  Organization and record keeping aren't my strong suits, but they are necessary when storing a lot of food in canning jars or the chest freezer. They also come in very handy in gardening.  Some skills have been a pleasure for me, and others I've had to force myself to learn and practice.  It helps enormously to have a partner with a very different set of preferences and intellectual strengths.  My husband is an engineer, and that makes him a natural at figuring out and repairing mechanical things, or building things that are going to last more than one season.

We were able to harvest 600 pounds (272 kg) of food for ourselves, and a lot of feed for our laying hens last year, in our third year of homesteading.  2009 was a really bad gardening year in my area, and we got no harvest at all from most of our immature perennials.  We didn't use the garden space we had last year nearly as well as we could have, nor did we do much about season extension.  In other words, 600 pounds is not a remarkable yield from a sub-acre residential lot and it doesn't reflect the benefit of having put in perennials several years back.  So I expect to see a better annual harvest tally this year. 

I hope these examples will serve to encourage those of you who are struggling through the first challenging years of making a major life transition to homesteading or smallholding.  The early years are full of work, there's no denying it.  But the rewards are there too, and they don't take all that many years to increase dramatically.  If the idea of homesteading seems out of reach because you don't have acres of land, or because the payoff seems so far away, take heart.  We have limitations to deal with too.  Neither my husband nor I are what you'd consider young, and we'll probably never be able to raise pigs in our backyard. But we're doing what we can and seeing more possibilities year by year.