Operation Food 2017 Update

So… it’s been awhile.  Operation Food is still underway, and has made much progress.  Since I last wrote we have tilled, manured, planted, and set up a watering system for the gardens.  Although, not automatic (yet), the system we have in place requires little effort and ZERO hose maneuvering, which I’m ecstatic about! We’ve also acquired four pigs, and twenty-six chickens.  We’ve built a chicken tractor, gotten our property line guarded by barbed wire and electric strands, and created a pig training area.   Did I mention I also raised a litter of Great Pyrenees puppies?  Side note: I’m thinking of doing a different blog about how that all worked out and came to be in the first place, but for now here’s a cute picture to make your day…

Adorable? Yes.  Stinky, expensive, and time consuming?  Also yes.

With all of this going on, and the first timers’ unease we’ve had, writing blogs has been taking a backseat.  I’m happy to say, (knocking on wood) that it seems we finally have actually gotten started and are on our way to a great deal of food independence.  The chickens, pigs, and even the puppies (of course as guardian animals, not livestock just in case you didn’t get where I was going there) all play into having an independent food supply, but this post from here on out will stick to the gardening aspect.

So, here we go… Over the winter we spent a lot of time planning, researching seeds and livestock criteria.  My husband, brother-in-law, and myself picked a day and worked together.  One of us would go along the beds with a pitchfork making holes and wiggling the soil loose, another would till the paths, then finally we scooped the tilled soil on to the planting bed.  The beds are each four feet wide with the intent, of course, being able to have reach to the middle from either side of the path.  we didn’t get chickens before spring to tractor over the area.  Instead, we planted the beds and paths with nitrogen-fixing red clover. (That is not to imply it’s a special kind of clover; for those who don’t know, all clover is nitrogen-fixing, and most annual garden plants are high nitrogen feeders)  We could’ve done that in February and had more time for it to grow, hence more nitrogen for the soil before planting, but we didn’t get to it until March.

Finished first steps


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Red Clover sprouts in March

The initial plan was to cover the beds with cardboard for a weed barrier, with straw mulch on top, making holes for plantings as they came.  And boy, do I wish we would have.  It’s a decision that will haunt me until next year.  Especially since we had a huge stock pile of discarded cardboard boxes from my husband’s work.  Running short on time and energy, we decided to opt for straw only.  The clover had barely grown enough to do any good before it was time to start planting.  Root vegetables and collards were ready to be seeded.  So on we went only pulling up the areas we were going to seed immediately and letting the rest grow.  At this point, we hadn’t acquired any manure so these plants were all seeded with no added fertility.

Around this time, which was a little late, we began starting seeds indoors.  We had just installed some shelving in the basement for food storage; half of which was not being utilized.  We built hanging lights and attached a timer to the light cycle, invested in some seed starter trays and organic starter and potting mixes, and set up a seedling area.  We planted tomatoes, tomatillos, peppers, onions, peas, beans, and squash/cucumber varieties.  Basically in that order of succession.  Tomatoes, tomatillos and peppers take a bit longer to get going, and you want peas to have a head start for spring planting in our climate. (I advise finding planting charts for your specific region, which of course, requires knowing your climate zone!)

At this point I would like to state the many things that will be done differently next year.  I am definitely not going to slack on the weed barrier.  This would have saved me much time recently.  We didn’t quite get as many herb seeds as I would have liked started.  I had dreams of basil varieties, tarragon, thyme and so many others intermingled with our crops, but alas, we failed in preparation this time.  I think that even for the carrots and root vegetables (save maybe the prolific radish) I will probably start indoors a bit earlier.  This would allow a longer growing period, and it would enable us to have better control over weeds.  Especially in the case of the carrot.  Weeding can be quite tricky when you’ve got Queen Anne’s Lace (aka “wild carrot”) popping up everywhere.  We won’t know if it’s a large juicy carrot or a measly little white root until we harvest.  (!Disclaimer! I do not condone eating anything “wild” unless you are 100% positive of species identification) Although still edible, the wild carrot isn’t quite worth the trouble.  I can start 75 seedlings in one $5 seed tray.  To have 75 carrots that I know are going to be delicious seems worth it to me! I will also be starting the collard greens indoors next year, probably in February.  Luckily we’ll get a second chance for planting a fall crop coming up in July.  I’m thinking with all of the radish seeds I’ve already collected, I should be able to disperse seed in a sprinkling fashion on bare ground.  Hopefully allowing them to hog space without a weed barrier, then thinning throughout the season.

When it was time to plant out the seedlings we’d started, we were lucky to find free horse manure, and had the means to collect it.  We added the manure right on top of the clover and spread a thin layer over the top of not-yet-planted areas, covered with straw, then planted the tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and oh yeah… I got some yacons to try out!

Our manure came with a welcomed hitchhiker.  Purslane can be a prolific weed, which is good news to me.  It’s high in omega-3’s, vitamins, and antioxidants.  It’s a wonderful plant to add to salad or mixed rice type dishes, and it has potential as a livestock supplement/feed. 

The trenches we tilled and dug out are working well.  We’ve had to water very little; only when it’s been dry for at least a week.  2016jan-jun2017-023.jpgSince we had a lot of cardboard that didn’t get used on top of the beds, we began to use it to fill the trenches.  I was hoping to use wood chips, but our wood chipper isn’t quite in working order, and I haven’t found another source.  Cardboard, although suitable for water absorption, isn’t the most suitable or easiest to work with in this case.  We’ve only gotten about half of the depth of the trench filled with what we had,  leaving room for water to pool, making it a bit slippery to get through.  Hopefully by next year we’ll have a source of wood chips and can improve upon the paths.

Getting later in to May we began to prepare rows where we would plant corn, beans and squash.  Otherwise known as a three sisters garden, historically utilized by Native Americans.  We started an early “summer harvest” plot containing sweet corn, green beans, and cucumber.  Unfortunately our tiller, following suit with the wood chipper, began having problems.  On the bright side we got the two rows we needed done before it went kaput!  Generally the three sisters garden is planted in the order of corn first, beans a couple of weeks later, followed by squash.  All planted from seed.  The rule as I understand it is vaguely a ratio of 1:1:1 for each plant.  Being that we were a bit out of order the beans had already been started indoors and growing strong while the corn was popping up.  So I did it on more of a 1:5 bean to corn ratio, hoping for the beans to not overpower the corn.  We waited a bit before planting the cucumber which had also been started in seed trays.  I will say that as of right now (June) they’re all growing at an apparently healthy rate ratio.

cucumber flower growing amongst the corn
Green beans from the same row pictured above

One mound had manure added, the other didn’t.  It doesn’t seem to have made much of a difference, but the soil we worked with had been covered in dead blackberry branches from the ones that moved on, leaving behind a lovely looking and smelling soil.  No doubt due to the natural composting that took place as the blackberries crawled across the landscape.  They created refuge and food for rabbits, birds, turtles, and snakes who all left behind their own special “gifts” for soil organisms.

Once this corn extension was added to the garden, and sprinklers were all but failing to be of use, it became quite clear just how helpful some soaker hose would be.  I invested in three 75′ length Gilmour Flat Weeper/Soaker hoses from amazon costing $15.25 a piece.  They’ve held up so far with no complaints.  I also got a four-way splitter, for around $10 (I think) with brass switches.  The switches are a very important detail in my opinion.  I saw some that were even more expensive with plastic switches which will eventually crack and break off.  We were able to get the water where it needed to go with the many random hoses we were lucky to have around.  Eventually we plan to take the watering system to an automatic level using sensors to test moisture in the soil which  will automatically activate the drip line when necessary.

Another patch of land across the driveway has been dedicated to newly planted grapes, raspberries, service berry, and currant.  We just started some corn to save as flour and grain in between these plantings.  Although it is within pollination distance from the sweet corn, the idea is that the lapse in time between plantings will not allow them to flower at the same time.  I’ve also added a patch of sorghum in some space between, and I’m hoping it’s not too late to get some chia and amaranth seeds in the ground, as I think that they would help to create a barrier for any corn pollen to get stuck to without reaching the other variety.

Aside from the main crops and previously mentioned plants  we’ve also added okra, sweet potatoes (for seed only this year,) hardy kiwi, passion fruit, sunflowers, and probably a few others that are slipping my mind.  I plan to write separate posts on the pig and chicken experiences.  Thank you for reading, hope you enjoyed, and as I say for almost everything, what works for us might not work for you.  This is just what we’ve done and found to work specifically for us, and I hope anyone who can help us improve will leave comments and knowledge below.





Mixing Edibility With Elegance

Suburbia is used to perfectly tailored gardens with a nice row of cut evergreens, uniform lawns, and vibrant flowers with colored mulch.  So it’s a given that many “Suburbanites” aren’t so fond of growing food in the context of permaculture and forest gardening.  It doesn’t “fit in” to the suburban landscape.  It is my opinion, though, that both things can be accomplished.  Maybe a little less lawn, a little more work, but all very worth it.  With a little compromise, one can have vibrant flowers, colored mulch, and most of it you could eat!

One of the rules of gardening in general is to not trample the soil.  Gardens are usually segregated to the front of a house and maybe the sides of the yard, while lawn takes up most of the space.  On the contrary, in permaculture you want to add as many species as you can fit in a smaller space.  This requires paths that weave through the landscape, leaving room for the plants to have non-impacted  soil, while still allowing access.  In short, you want to have designated trampling grounds.  This ground should be mulched for multiple reasons.  If you have a section of the path that maybe you haven’t gotten to for awhile, without mulch, it will become overgrown, and if you have paths that are continuously walked without mulch the opposite will happen.  You’ll end up with muddy, and quite unattractive pieces of ground.

Since last year I’ve been doing some experimenting.  We knew we wanted to add some sub-canopy, and shrub layers to the yard that already contains one black walnut, one oak, a silver maple, and a beautiful thicket-forming crabapple… which has of yet to make very many apples. The space between the trees was all lawn and had been mowed for several years.  We knew we were going to stop mowing, and begin adding fertility to the soil before planting any new trees.

The problem began to be finding the right mulch to cover our path surface. Wood mulch from stores is not only expensive, but most of it is treated with dyes and chemicals.  So I got to thinking…

Have you ever noticed the beautiful blanket of pine needles that form underneath one of these magnificent trees?  Although they’re evergreen, they shed a bit in the fall and leave masses of needles.  Pine, unlike some other species, have soft bristles that don’t poke if you walk on them barefoot.

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We are lucky to have these beauties that provide more than enough mulch for my garden in the yard.

Of course you need a weed barrier.  Pine needles aren’t going to stop growth alone for a whole season.  They will let in sunlight allowing plants to grow, and get eaten up by fungi in no time if they were touching bare soil.  For this, I used cardboard.  No, it’s not even close to a long-term weed barrier, as it too will be eaten by fungi and microbes to become part of the soil once again. BUT! What this layering does can be far more wonderful than any permanent solution.

This is where compromise comes in to play.  Someone used to tailored gardens may have preferred to used plastic and treated wood that will last for quite literally years, but won’t add any fertility.  It requires more maintenance, but after experimenting with sections of the path for a full year, I saw the cycle taking place.

I found that the cardboard will do it’s job for just about one full year, at least on our soil.  By then, it’s still holding true to aesthetics, but there isn’t much time left before life from underneath will break free.  Towards the end of the winter when we had a few warm days, I scraped at it with a hoe, and was pleasantly surprised.  Not only did the cardboard break up easily mixing with the pine needles forming a fine debris, but there was a fresh layer of nice topsoil directly underneath.  This layer scraped away with ease.  I simply hoed the material and mounded it upon the soon-to-be planting spots.  It was a lovely mixture of compost fit for perennial plants.  So I began work to bring the process to the rest of the paths.

At first the pine needles didn’t look like they were going to stick.  They were quite fluffy and slippery on top of the cardboard, and I thought they would all wash or float away.

This was immediately after completion, the pine needles weren’t quite adhered to the cardboard yet.  The mounds of soil are prepared spots for trees and shrubs.

Once I saturated the layers, my worries were calmed. They became one stuck mat.  Even where it seemed they would all float downhill from the curves in our path, they became adhered to the cardboard, and the cardboard had adhered to the soil.

It is now June, and the paths are holding strong in color and function.  The path has become an elegant piece of our growing forest garden.  I had to learn as I went along, and go back and redo parts that our puppy chewed up and destroyed, but now I think I have it down to a fairly easy and low maintenance system.  The fall being time for collection, and the end of winter being the time of maintenance so things are all fresh and ready for planting in spring.

The whole of the forest garden I intend to grow here is nowhere near its completion.  We’ve added peach, apricot, plum, pawpaw, and gooseberry.  The fruit trees will make a beautiful array of purple, white, and pink flowers in the coming years.  I’ve added yarrow, cilantro, and onion to the herbaceous species, all of which have their own unique flowering forms.  They are all white, and I’m looking to add more color variety that is still, at least useful, if not edible.  I’m also planning to collect and use an array of fall leaves and store them through next spring to add a thick mulch to the planted areas.

This is just one way that you can add function, benefit, and elegance while working with nature for sustainability.

Operation Food for the 2017 Growing Season is Underway…

We’re embarking upon, what I hope, will be a big step to becoming responsible for our own food supply.  We’ve been learning all we can about different food preservation methods. With the hopes to be able to store much, if not all, of our yearly supply without the use of freezing or refrigeration, and with minimal canning.  Fermentation, drying/dehydrating, and curing are methods that were used long before the convenience of HVAC technology.  And at least in the case of fermentation, they preserve and even enhance the nutritional quality.

We’ve also spent much time studying exactly how we’re going to grow enough food to feed a family of four for a year.  Looking to others for wisdom through books such as Gaia’s Garden, Restoration Agriculture, Edible Forest Gardens, etc.., and watching homesteader upon homesteader on YouTube, we want to try it all! After taking the information into consideration, and putting in much thought, we’ve decided to incorporate various ideas from multiple sources.

The broad plan for the land is to:

-Till paths, and only paths, about two feet wide along contour, and as deep as the tiller blades will penetrate.  Creating six-foot wide beds with lengths that the contour and area will determine, but the paths will be consistently six feet apart.  This provides an area of reach into the middle of the bed from either side.  Therefore, maximizing usable garden space and decreasing the amount of soil being compacted by our footprints.

-The soil that is tilled from the paths will be shoveled to the contour bed at the level above.  The soil in most of this area is very high in organic matter.  We want to cause the least disturbance as possible, and only build upon fertility.

-The trenches that are left where the paths will be laid, will be filled with woodchips. (Thanks to our new to us, but old, but re-gadgetted woodchipper!) The purpose of the trenched and mulched path is to act as swales with mulch that will retain water, and hopefully release it slowly into the soil of the surrounding garden beds.  We don’t expect the method to eliminate the need for watering, but to at least minimize and make more productive the times we will have to water.

-The beds will be covered with a layer of cardboard, (for weed suppression, and moisture retention) then finished compost, and finally a layer of straw, hay, leaves, or a mixture of whatever non-woody organic material we have on hand.  We wouldn’t use wood chips on top of the beds. This would encourage more fungal activity that perennial plants like, but not the mostly annual plants we’ll be growing this time.  They prefer a more bacteria inoculated soil.

-The exceptions to the rule of non-woody mulch, will be the areas that will occupy small seedling trees.  As for now, many annuals can be grown around and in between their spacing.  We plan to get young fruit, nut, and leguminous species.  Fruits and nuts, of course, for us, and the legumes for nitrogen fixation and, if not for us, livestock fodder.

-Seeds and seedlings will be planted according to; seasonality, light/water/soil biology requirements, and space preservation based upon root type. That means we can alternate between root space requirements in order to conserve space.  For example, beets and radishes have a shallow, large tuber that will take up around 1-3 inches in the top layer of soil.  You can plant something in the cabbage family, which has fibrous roots, at their recommended distance apart, but fill the space in between with a bulbous or tuberous type plant.


-In the larger scheme of things, we hope to one day have a pond at a higher elevation than the garden.  This would provide a source of feeding the swales on a more consistent basis.  Ideally, the pond would come first, but it’s a case of production vs. resources.  We want to start food production any way we can, but lack the resources and preparation for a pond.

-If it is possible, and we can get chickens before tilling, we will be grazing them throughout the field to help eradicate weeds, break up the soil, and add fertility via their poop.

We’ve decided to start with an area that is (roughly) 1/3 of an acre. It was a field covered in grasses and bramble (blackberry) remnants from their years of migration.  Before we endeavored  the mowing of plants, I went through and dug up some Yarrow (Achillea Millefolium) to be transplanted.  It was the only species growing that wasn’t plentiful elsewhere on the property, and it has medicinal, pest control, and aesthetic significance.  We left an elderberry to be incorporated into what will eventually be considered a forest garden.

Over 20 years, the blackberries made their way from the edge of the pine trees on the left, to the fenceline on the right. You can see some of their new branches on the right side of the photo.  Imagine what a time lapse video would like like, to watch them actually crawl across the landscape.

The area had been neglected for years, and things that had been left in a once-mowed field, were now buried within the overgrowth.  Amongst the debris we found; tires, metal fence posts, rotted wood, nearly a whole role of  rusty barbed wire fencing… fun times!  There was a very large pile of too-rotted-to-use-wood for heating, but also too treated to use for putting to use for the garden, so we chose to burn it.  You can see the smouldering ashes in the photo above.  This does pose some concerns for me. Mainly, toxins in the soil and decreased soil fertility due to the high heat from the fire.  But, it’s on the downhill side, so nothing should leach into the above garden soil. I’m thinking that we have enough space to grow our food and let that portion rehabilitate for awhile.

After clearing, we were left with a lot of (fairly) chopped mulch of grass clippings and woody debris.  I raked some of it around the young elderberry, and the rest I began collecting for either compost or mulch.  I’m not sure how to put it to use as of yet, but I know it’s useful!

It may not look like it, but this really is progress.  There’s no turning back once it has begun. So now, we just have to get the tiller working, see if we can get chickens before or near spring, figure out what to plant, buy seeds and seedlings, and take care of all of the other things that will miscellaneously come up!  But this is where we are, and to me it is beautiful.

Don’t Give Up, Get Started!

So you want to live a more sustainable life.  You have some knowledge of what it is you want to do, but no idea how to get there.  Well, welcome to the club.

My husband and I started deciding we wanted to live this way almost five years ago. We were still only dating, and he showed me a picture of this crazy looking house that (who I thought of then as) a weird hippy guy created, called an Earthship.  I’ll admit, I was very skeptical.

There was still a very naive view of the world in my mind.  I was, at that point, still technically a single mother with a young son and a bar-tending job.  It was finally making me enough money that moving out of my parents’ house would be an option.  I’d been through some drama in the past and was ready for the simple cookie-cutter life that most of us settle for.  All under the impression it would give my son stability and a good chance to make it “somewhere” in the world.

It was my husband who made me realize that there wouldn’t be much of a world for him to grow up to if we didn’t start doing something about it.  The “weird hippy guy”, Michael Reynolds, was actually on to something.  Looking at what he was doing and why he was doing it, changed my entire outlook.  This proved to be only the beginning of a long journey that we are still only, maybe, a quarter of the way through.

When you set out to do something, it rarely goes as planned.  It takes initiative, knowledge, patience…the list goes on and on.  But when you find something you are passionate about, those things tend to just fall into place.  We are years into what we want to accomplish.  Yet, we are still years away.  We’ve been reading, watching, experimenting, and learning all of this time, and we’ve changed our plans dozens of times.

What we have accomplished though, is a clear vision.  My husband has been working extremely hard on drafting our house plans.  Which have changed so much from our original Earthship idea.  We’ve gone from that, to thinking about cob structures, to finally deciding that strawbale is the right design for our needs, material availability, budget, and climate.  I have been working on figuring out how we are going to grow enough food to feed our family without having to take the awful bi-weekly trip to the grocery store to get less than premium quality food.  This involves livestock, vegetable and caloric crop growing, and harvesting and preservation methods.

Our goal is to become 100% sustainable, and even go as far as to become “regenerative.”  Meaning we give back more than we take out.  The term came to us from another great in the vision of a better world, Mark Shepard, who has done some wonderful explorations in creating a permanent agricultural system using tree crops as main caloric crops.  Replacing the destructive annual mono-cultures we have come to rely upon.  You can check out his website here.  And I strongly recommend his book, Restoration Agriculture to anyone interested in this topic.

Anyway, I’m being a bad writer and got slightly off-topic, but the message I would like to convey, is that what works for us may not work for you.  Every situation is different, and sometimes just getting started is the hardest part.  Some of us tend to spend too much time listening to other people and their opinion of what needs to be done.  We’ve experienced many unexpected setbacks along the way, but we choose to let them make us stronger.

When times get hard and I get too deep in doubt, my husband reminds me of how it will be one day.  When the kids are grown and we’ve contributed all we can to this life, we’ll be sitting on our porch looking at a lovely view laughing about it all.  And I’m sure a certain sadness will creep over us that longs for the days of the hectic schedules and hard work.  Don’t give up!  Don’t let doubt be a factor.  Learn as much as you can, then take action!  If you fail, try again.  If there’s a block in your path, either move it, or get some off-road tires to go around it.  And most of all, always listen to yourself.