Homesteading Series VIII—Gardening

When it comes to gardening, everyone has his favorite crops, fertilizer, and methods. I’m going to cover the basics here, the way I do things, so feel free to improvise and adapt. Furthermore, I’m going to assume this is your first large garden on your homestead.

You don’t start your garden in the spring, you actually start in January. That’s when you make a list and a plan. Decide what you want to grow—and remember, no matter how much you might want to experiment, if your family doesn’t like it, don’t bother putting in the work to grow it.

Make a list as to when each vegetable should go in the ground, or when they should be started indoors. Go to your local extension website to find one of their charts—these are super helpful. Then purchase your seeds or starters. Go with heirloom varieties. These are non-GMO and you can harvest and dry the seeds for next year. I order mine from My Patriot Supply; Baker’s Creek is another popular choice.

I make my lists in a Word doc, and save from year-to-year which helps in planning. I make notes during the season so I can do better the following year. That’s always the goal, making your garden better and more productive each year.

About the middle of February, you’ll want to fertilize your garden area. I use horse manure, because, well, I have six horses and plenty of manure. I let it sit for a couple weeks, plow it under, then let it sit for a couple more weeks. This is also the time to put up that deer fence, at least seven or eight feet high, with chicken wire and rocks around the bottom to keep out the rabbits. If you already have that fence, check it, tighten it, and do any repairs.

As soon as the ground thaws—for the most part, early March or so—we till it and rake out the old growth, rocks, and whatever else has found its way in there. Then we’re ready to plant.

All this said, you’ll also need a watering system. Watch the weather and get a rain gauge to see how much rainfall you’re actually getting. My luck, if I water, it rains; if I wait, it doesn’t. But you need a system to deliver that water to your vegetables and a system to make sure they’re getting enough, but not too much.

We played around with soaker hoses, PVC pipes, and a few other things, but it came down to good old-fashioned hoses and sprinklers. I’ve hooked up enough hose and figured out the right placement so I don’t have to drag those heavy suckers any more than necessary. In the fall, you simply drain and coil the hoses and they’re good for the next year.

A lot of people garden in raised beds, and some use tires, or squares, or whatever, but I stick to what generations of my family have used: plain, straight rows. My rows all run about 25 feet deep, for 100 feet. The entire garden, fenced, is twice that size, because I also have a few fruit trees—so they say, haven’t seen any actual fruit yet—some wild black raspberries, grapes, blueberries, and strawberries, as well as the greenhouse. Speaking of, I got that on Amazon, steel frame, heavy plastic, zippered from door and velcroed back window, 10 X 12, for about $200. Good product. Just a note: it’s also held down with rocks around the base, as well as steel anchors. We have a lot of rocks, may as well use them! But seriously, once the darn thing blew over when it was open and caught a gust of wind; I’d just stepped out. My seedlings went everywhere, so that year we had “surprise” rows in the garden or, as someone once said: mixed vegies.

The first row in my garden is a dedicated asparagus bed; the second row is for garlic. Garlic takes about 10 months, and it’s planted in the fall around the first of October. So, when I’m spreading manure and plowing up the ground, I always know where those two crops are located—unlike when I pointed out the strawberry patch and told my husband DO NOT plow those up. And he did. Of course.

The rest of the rows are marked and usually pretty straight; it can be tricky. I had heard that my great-grandpa used a board to help with that, but he must have had a longer one that what I tried one year. Now, I just eyeball it and hope for the best! I plan out roughly a foot and a half per row, with two feet in between. That leaves the right amount of space for my little tiller without tearing up the vegetables, and room for them to grow in a, hopefully, straight line.

I add plants or seeds to the garden as they’re scheduled to be planted: peas, spinach, kale, onions, lettuce, and so forth, starting around the middle of March through the middle of May. My tomatoes and peppers are started, of course, in the greenhouse, near the end of March, and go into the ground after about two months. I used to use those tiny seed starting trays, but finally got smarter and bought about a hundred plastic planting cups, with drain holes, about the size of a Styrofoam cup, for just a few dollars. Seedlings have more room to grow, and you can reuse them for years. I mark all of them with a Popsicle stick and permanent marker, which can also be reused.

As to how much to plant? Go back to that local extension website. They have a list for that too—how much person to plant for eating and for processing. It’s a lot. But if you’re homesteading, and aiming for self-sufficiency, you’ll need a lot. For instance, I generally plant two rows of green beans; that’s a total of 50 feet. Between eating them often, a few times a week, and freezing the rest, that’ll give me enough green beans for two people for an entire year. That’s the goal.

Some things won’t grow…this year. They might next year. As you gain more experience, you’ll do better each year. You might be overrun with jalapenos—true story—or you may end up buying zucchini. Also a true story, and a very sad one…

About that tiller I mentioned…I generally till between the rows in my garden every couple weeks to improve drainage and aeration. However, I DO NOT do this until my seeds have broken through the ground and are identifiable. Lesson learned: you will end up with kale in the onion row. I don’t start weeding until then either, for a similar reason—you certainly don’t want to pull up the wrong things.

I have an electric tiller, a Sun Joe. It’s cute, but powerful. Compared to my old gas one, it’s an absolute dream—it’s only jammed twice in two years; the old one would stop once every couple rows (those rock, ya know). Also, this one starts with pulling the trigger and starts immediately; with the old one, by the time I got it started, I was too tired to till!

So, from mid-March until mid-May, you’re planting and watering and maybe pulling a few really obvious weeds well in-between rows, and then BAM! All of a sudden, you’ll be tilling and weeding and running that sprinkler for a couple hours a day.

And then—everything is ready to harvest all at once. And when you do that, you have to either eat it or process it. I can my tomatoes, but freeze almost everything else. Sometimes I dehydrate, like onions or peppers. Naturally, all that is done during the hottest days of the year, and it can be brutal. Mostly it’s herbs that I dry, and no, I don’t plant those in the garden. They’re on my back porch, with easy kitchen access, and in the winter they go into the greenhouse.

But wait, there’s more! You ALSO have to keep weeding and watering, while you’re harvesting and processing. So, let’s say I spend a couple hours one day, weeding and watering my garden, and then three more hours cooking tomato sauce and canning it. There’s five hours, plus feeding the animals, another hour or so, plus any household chores, plus maybe cutting firewood, and there’s your day. And during the season, this is at least 3-4 days a week if your garden is going to feed your family for the following year.

Just like anything on a homestead, there’s constant work, and some of it’s physically hard. Be prepared before you start, but everything here will help keep you organized and knowing (some) of what to expect.

Homestead Series VII—Livestock

Let’s talk a little more about keeping livestock on your homestead. Just because you’ve bought your property and have a house or cabin to live in, it doesn’t mean you can find a cute little goat on Craigslist and bring it home. First, you have to know what you’re doing and you have to be able to take care of your animals.

Decide what kind of animals you want to have. Popular homestead choices are chickens, goats, pigs, and cows. All of them need shelter, food, water, and protection. But why do you want livestock?

Self-sufficiency is, of course, the number one reason. Maybe you just like animals. Perhaps you’re going to sell products, or raise and sell the animals themselves. Or you just really, really like bacon. All of these are good reasons, but you want to remember that animals are expensive to feed and care for and so you should get some kind of return on your investment.

With chickens, you can sell eggs or even some chickens—naturally, you can also eat both. I strongly suggest you forgo a rooster—they’re mean and they’ll fertilize those eggs you plan to eat or sell. Then again, I hate chickens. A lot.

Goats and cows provide both milk, which can be turned into butter and cheese, or meat. Keep in mind, if you’re going the meat route, you’ll need to butcher your animals or take them to a processing plant—find one near you and remember, you’ll also need to transport them. Same for pigs. Well, not the milk, butter, and cheese part!

Also, you want your animals to be healthy and happy, which means they need at least one other of their kind, a buddy so to speak. So right away you have two of whichever you choose.

All of these animals need some kind of shelter. They need to get out of the rain and wind, not to mention snow, and some need to be kept warmer than others. You’ll probably notice, at some point, that the beautiful structure you built for them is empty—know that it’s there for them, and they’re probably using it when you aren’t looking. A shelter doesn’t mean they’ll spend all their time in it, it means it’s available should they choose to use it. Sure, you’ll see a herd of cows in a field with no barn or shed in sight, but that’s generally more than two on a homestead; a large group can huddle together for warmth, two cows cannot.

A shelter doesn’t need to be fancy or have utilities, just a place that acts as a windbreak. Check your area to see from which direction the prevailing winds blow, and of course, any weather out of the north is going to be colder. A shelter for cows or goats or pigs doesn’t need to be as tall as one for horses, but a chicken coop should be completely enclosed, both for heat and for protection from predators. And, chickens need a place to roost and to nest.

Speaking of protection, you don’t want to just let your livestock roam, especially far from where you can watch over them. Your animals need to be contained, not just for their protection, but also to preserve your homestead. You really don’t want to walk through manure all the time, and goats in particular will eat everything on your property. Everything.

Check with your local extension office as to how much room your animal(s) of choice need, keeping in mind that all of these will forage—for bugs, worms, grubs, roots, grass, and whatnot. The more they can forage and graze, the less you’ll spend on feed and hay. We’ll get to that in a minute.

Your fences should be sturdy, built for the type of livestock you have. You don’t want goats getting stuck in the fence, or cows getting torn up by barbed wire, or chickens flying here, there, and everywhere. If your animals are securely contained, there will be less work for you—and maybe your neighbors—rounding them up and repairing fences.

Depending on the size and location of your corrals or pens or pastures, you’ll need to be able to see them or you might need an LGD. A trained dog will watch out for your livestock and keep them safe, particularly if you have only two animals in a pasture—and those should be mature animals, not babies. Even two babies together isn’t enough protection from a predator. If your livestock isn’t located close to your house and the pasture is large, you’ll need to bring them in at night to a smaller area with a shelter.

Water is paramount. If you don’t have a well, get one drilled. There are government loans and grants for this purpose, as water is considered a health issue. Google it. Your livestock needs access to water 24/7, and if you’re hauling water for them, your workload has tripled—especially in the winter. A mature cow will drink up to 24 gallons a day; goats need 2-3 per day. You’ll need to invest in water troughs, as per the type of livestock you keep, and you’ll need to keep them clean and thawed, year round. You might be lucky enough to have a pond or a running creek or river on your property—that will help but cannot replace hydrants and troughs.

If your animals are foraging, they’ll need less feed provided by you. However, even the best pastures can become overgrazed and useless if you don’t rotate your animals. Here in the Ozarks, our pastures are either rock-filled or wooded. We have three paddocks/pastures for our horses, currently, and we allow grazing during the growing season only, for up to six hours or so a few days a week. As we expand our pastures, the horses will have more time to graze, which means our hay cost will go down.

Cows will eat 24 pounds of hay a day—or grass; goats need about 3-4 pounds. Pigs will eat hay, about five pounds a day, or while on pasture. On average, a 50-pound bale costs about $5.00. So, doing the math, that’s $72 a month per cow, $12 per goat, and $15 per pig. That’s not counting any grain or supplements.

Additionally, you might need to call the vet on occasion, particularly if you’re breeding your animals, and you might provide a salt or mineral block or extra treats. These animals look to you to provide their needs, and their needs can be expensive.

Their needs can also be time-consuming, especially if you’re still working a day job. All of your livestock needs to be fed twice a day, and their water checked; if you’re milking, that’s twice a day as well. This takes time, energy, and physical strength. If you don’t have those three things, you shouldn’t keep livestock. You’ll need to do the feeding and watering and milking every single day, 356 days, whether it’s cold or hot or storming, whether or not you “feel” like it or you’re sick or crippled or whatever. If you can’t commit to that, you shouldn’t have animals.

If you’re planning on selling products or breeding, there will be more work involved in obtaining, making, packaging, and marketing those products. And more expense.

Additionally, you should do your livestock chores at about the same time each day. Yes, you can make exceptions—animals can’t, after all, tell time…except my horses. I swear. But if you feed at 7:00 a.m., and again at 7:00 p.m., on a regular basis, you really can’t just “sleep in” until 10:00. If you decide to go out for dinner, you’ll need to feed a little early—that’s certainly doable. But you won’t be having any long weekends or getaways as long as you have livestock that depends on you.

Most homesteads have livestock, or are planning on doing so. You’ll need to research, decide, and prepare before you add animals. They’ll need a place to live, just like you did when you first purchased your property, and you’ll need to be able to care for them, physically and financially.

*Disclaimer: I didn’t talk much about chickens, except they need protection from the weather and from predators. They also, of course, need feed and water and eggs must be collected. But there’s a good reason for this—chickens are cheap, pardon the pun, and easy to care for if you like birds. I do not. Ick. Gross. But that’s just me…because of a rooster fifty years ago!