Like most homesteads, the gardens are the heart of the food creating. The first step. And many people plant gardens, always have. My very first garden was one I’d planted when I was twelve. It was popcorn, right from the jar, and I scratched a short space in the front yard, unbeknownst to my stepfather. Several months later we had this row of very strange looking weeds growing in the middle of an otherwise well manicured lawn. I caught heck for it, but it was my humble beginning at agriculture. I’ve loved gardening ever since, and when I got out on my own after college I just always seemed to have a garden of some sort. My gardening reached new heights when I purchased my first rototiller. I studied cover cropping, and planting early season buckwheat for soil nutrients. I began composting as well, but back then it was just a heap in corner of the back yard where kitchen scraps were tossed. But it was just a one season, summer garden. I knew nothing of season extension, or growing crops for storage. It was just cucumbers, tomatoes, zucchini, etc.
Nowadays, on the homestead, we still grow those items but they aren’t the mainstay of the crops. Since we indeed are homesteading, and trying to provide as much for ourselves as possible, we think in terms of ‘hard times’ gardening. Meaning, we stress the very basic foods that store well, and branch out from there. We are gardening about an eighth of an acre, which isn’t tremendous you might say. But don’t forget, it is just the two of us, and we aren’t market gardeners. Any extra food that we grow that goes to other people, we give to them.
So, what do we grow? Since we make a lot of soups, we grow a lot of root vegetables. Carrots, potatoes, parsnips, turnips, rutabagas, onions and leeks, garlic. We also grow and can tomatoes, cucumbers, and cabbage. Plus we grow many leaf vegetables such as lettuce, collards, kale, swiss chard, spinach, and beet greens. This is by no means all that we grow, but it gives you a glance at this type of gardening.
Since we grow all of these vegetables in three gardens and two greenhouses, we need to do a lot of preseason planning. We begin by conducting an on-going narrative throughout the year, continually evaluating what plants seems to work well for us, served us well in the past, and what we like the most, taste-wise. We will occasionally try a new vegetable and drop another. This year for example, we are giving wheat a try, and we are dropping mustard. We grew four varieties of potatoes last year, but this year we simplified to three. We grew dry beans our first year in Maine, but found that it takes more room than we care to dedicate to it. Besides, we have a neighbor who specializes in that item, and so we acquire several varieties of beans from her, in bulk.
Once we have pretty much decided on a list of vegetables, we sit down and figure out where everything will go. To do this we created maps of the garden space, including the greenhouses. We need to have a game plan, as opposed to just going at the planting willy-nilly. This takes us a considerable amount of time. Then when the catalogues begin arriving, we can refine our selections, and tighten our plans.
Seed catalogues! There are so many seed companies out there that it truly is difficult deciding what varieties to grow and from whom to buy them. Since we live in Maine, and prefer to buy locally, we mostly use Johnnys Select Seeds, and Fedco. Another company we like is Seed Savers Exchange. We like to sit down and make these decisions in January, and I like this meeting to take place during a blizzard if possible. There is just something about sitting by the wood stove with coffee, while pouring (not the coffee) over the seed catalogues. I feel that we make our best decisions when it is snowing outside. In some instances we stick with tried and true varieties, but occasionally we become bold and go out on a limb and try something unique. Okra, for example. Danielle loves to cook Indian Cuisine, and okra is a featured ingredient in many popular recipes. (Now that our own goats have freshened, she is making paneer. That plus our own spinach and she can make our very own farm raised saag paneer, my favorite.)
Once the rough draft of our seed list is complete, Danielle will then take another couple of weeks studying each and every plant. She especially loves the Fedco catalogue because it is a wealth of information, pertinent to our northern climate. This is something I cannot help her with. I’ve tried to give her input, but she just wants to know everything about the plants that we choose.
Danielle is also learning how to save seed. In some instances this isn’t too hard, like with beans, or peas, squash, tomatoes. But now she is learning how to save seed from parsnips, carrots, and onion. The act of saving seed is akin to printing money. Monsanto, move over. Get lost.
Thank you for all the nice comments and questions. Please join us next week as we discuss greenhouses in the spring, where I will show you that a greenhouse is not as formidable or expensive a structure as you might think. I will show you how to build a greenhouse from just hardware store off-the-shelf materials.