In this series of posts called "The Dirt", we highlight some of our favorite homesteading…
We expect that a common theme on our site will be the things going on around our homestead. Before jumping into our day-day happenings, our future plans, and what we are working on improving, we thought that it might help to give you a broader feel for our property as it is today, and what things we have already put in place here.
Goals: The three primary goals for our homestead are for it to 1) produce more than it consumes (ideally both financially and in terms of yield), 2) provide for >50% of our food needs, and 3) to achieve this in a way that is as organically and sustainably as possible.
Property: At 1.6 acres, our property is fairly small compared with what one would normally envision when thinking about a homestead. The land is heavily wooded, sloping slightly to the southwest. Most of the southern sun exposure is blocked by a large stand of hardwoods, with only a very small portion of our land cleared out/available for planting (maybe 0.3 acres?). Geographically, we are in a USDA Zone 6a/6b, but at an elevation of nearly 900 feet, it can be closer to a zone 5 climate in some years. The soil is mostly clay and rock, with a relatively low pH. Overall, this land profile has presented us with numerous challenges, but it also has some unique opportunities that we will discuss in later posts.
Annual gardens: Over the last 3 years, we put in 15 raised beds. Most are ~4′ x 8′ with walls made from fallen timbers found around the property. And all are built with a wood core to promote moisture retention and build fungal activity in the soil. 2 beds are planted in perennials (asparagus, rhubarb), with the rest dedicated to annual plantings. We also put in a small greenhouse (8′ x 12′) in 2013 that we plan to use for seed starting and overwintering some greens, but haven’t quite perfected its use yet so it is currently sitting idle. In the area of gardening, we are still on a steep learning curve with only limited success in most of our crops, but we have had a few successes and continue to hone our skills every year.
Perennial plants: One thing that we are really excited about is expanding our plantings outside of the “garden”. This has allowed us to take advantage of the “edges” of our property with lower maintenance plants that will provide for us year after year. These include raspberries and blackberries (mostly native and already growing here), strawberries (planted in 2012), blueberries, gooseberries, currants and goji berries (all planted in 2013). The plants that we put in this year have not really started producing yet, but most have taken hold and seem to be showing healthy growth going into the 2014 growing season.
Small livestock: These animals are the heart of our system, effectively processing most of our kitchen scraps and garden waste into a great protein yield and free organic manure. We have a flock of 12 laying hens (Rhode Island Reds, 8 from 2012, 4 from 2013) that provide between 6-12 eggs a day depending on the season. We also added 4 rabbits in 2013 (California Giant/New Zealand crosses, 2 male, 2 female) that we plan to breed this spring for a meat yield. In the meantime, they are pumping out piles and piles of some great organic manure that are helping to fertilize our gardens and plants.
The Forest: Not actively managed on our part, but also not to be discounted, is the hardwood forest that we live in. The forest is fairly mature (some trees estimated at 60-90 yrs old), consisting mostly of red oak, maple, cherry, sassafras and silver beech. Harvested sustainably, these woods will provide for us over our lifetime with firewood that we use to heat the home (2-3 cord/year), leaves that we use for mulch and compost, logs that we can use to inoculate for mushroom growth, and sticks/twigs that we use for mulch and for the cores for our garden beds. Also, with some strategic harvesting and the “help” of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, we are opening up some more pockets of land/sun for us to expand our food production in the coming years.
Water: Being in a semi-rural area, most houses in our neighborhood (including ours) are on well water. This is a blessing in some ways (don’t have to worry about chemical additives in city water), but can be a curse in others. Specifically, power outages pose some interesting problems that we have addressed with the addition of a hand-pump and a generator. The water is quite “hard” (high in mineral content) and has some sediment coming directly from the well that requires a clarifying filter prior to use. We also supplement our limited irrigation water needs with two 50-60 gallon rain barrels which we use for drip irrigation and greenhouse “plumbing”.
When we moved onto this property, we had no intentions of taking up a homesteading lifestyle. We just enjoyed the isolation of being back in the woods and closer to nature. After our lives brought us further down our path and we decided that homesteading is something that we wanted to do, we were convinced that this property was not right for it. Painfully, we had resigned to needing to move if we were to do this properly. However, after much research (including a lot of inspiring examples in the urban gardening movement) and a little bit of creativity, we have found that this place might just have what we need to produce a thriving homestead. We now find ourselves blessed to be in a place with so many natural resources. This was a good lesson for us, and is consistent with our philosophy of “making do with what we have”. We hope that you are also encouraged by this…instead of pining for the perfect property that you may or may not ever obtain, take small steps forward on the property that you do have. You might be surprised by how much you can do!