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?
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.
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!
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. Since 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.
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.