June is a pivotal month on the homestead – literally! Cool season crops come out. Warm season crops go in. And until a few years ago, I used to dread this time of year and all the work to be done in the garden!
It was hot, humid, and a horrible time to turn beds. Hauling harvests out, and mulch in — while drenched in sweat — was not the beautiful homestead life I imagined. Even after I finished turning beds, I’d have to spend hours watering and weeding until my plants finally grew in! Of course, right about then the insect pests would come out in full force…
It just felt like nature, and perhaps the whole world, was against me. Thank goodness I don’t garden like that anymore! I’m about to share some details on how I garden in June. But before that, I want to share these updates.
You can still register for the free Superfood Summit happening later this month.
Amazing gardener and podcaster, Leslie Harris, posted our conversation about Weed-Free Gardening, homesteading, and general garden love on her beautiful site.
Stephanie Rose, over on Garden Therapy, had me and Weed-Free Gardening as guests on her lush, beautiful blog.
There’s a new chicken and duck post up over on Thrifty Homesteader written by me!
Mother Earth News also posted one of my articles on their blog.
Now, let’s get back to June on the Homestead!
Six years ago, when I suddenly became my dad’s full time care giver, my days of gardening for hours at a time came to an abrupt end. He had massive damage from a brain bleed that left him without access to most of his long-term memories and with no ability to store new memories.
He also had global aphasia. That meant he couldn’t accurately understand the things we said to him or find the right words to tell us what he needed.
If I left him alone very long, I’d come back to find him injured on the floor, brushing his teeth with hand soap, washing his jacket in the bathtub, or trying to set the house on fire in various ways. I also couldn’t leave him with other caregivers because he couldn’t communicate his needs effectively. I was only able to partially understand him because I knew his habits before his stroke.
For months, I had to limit my forays into the garden to increments of 15 minutes before going back to check on him. But I needed gardening more than ever during that tough time!
So, I started gardening plant by plant, instead of bed by bed or row by row.
Plant by Plant
To my surprise, not only did I do less work, I had bigger harvests, fewer weeds, faster rates of soil improvement, less waste, and more fun in the garden during the most difficult time in my life!
Now, I still turn the garden slowly, spending most of the month June to do it. Here are some examples of how I go about it.
If I harvest a potato plant that’s flowered or started to yellow, I use the leafy tops as mulch and sow the seeds of my next crop where I just dug the potatoes. If I mow down a leafy plant that’s timing out from heat stress, I leave the roots in place and sow something next to it.
Feed and Seed
If I’m planting a heavy feeder after a heavy feeder, I put down a couple layers of newspaper over the roots of the old plant. Then, I poke a hole in the paper with a dibber next to the old roots. After that, I cover the paper and all around with two inches of aged compost to nourish the soil. Then I sow my seeds in the compost over where I poked the hole.
I routinely underplant cool season pea plants with warm season beans. Heat loving beans just climb right over the old pea leaf matter.
I sow my tomato seeds or cucumbers on the outer edges of other plants. Then as the tomatoes or cucumber vines start to grow quickly, that’s when I harvest or repeat mow the adjacent cool season plants to time them out.
Over the past several years I’ve also rearranged my gardens to intermix annuals with a lot of perennials and biennials that don’t need to be turned. That way there’s always something in bloom to feed pollinators, to be host larva, and maintain soil stability for all the micro and macroscopic life forms that live in our soil.
Those plants also provide a kind of sheltering nursery for young plants, protecting them from wind and extremes of heat at this time of year. They keep the soil temperature lower and retain more moisture as well.
The View From Down Under
This process is so much more pleasant, requires less work, and results in bigger harvests than my old way of gardening like a farmer. That’s because it’s actually healthier and more beneficial to the soil.
From the perspective of all the microlife in our soil, when I used to suddenly pull out all of the old established plants, I was wiping out their food supply. Microlife feed on carbon exudates provided by plants through their roots. They also feed on dead or dying roots.
That way of gardening amounted to emptying the soil’s grocery store shelves all at once. Panic ensued. Soil microlife raced around, gathering whatever bits of fresh carbon food they could to quell their fears of starvation.
All the frantic panicking caused massive soil disturbance below ground. Those disturbances weathered seed coatings and triggered chemical changes in the soil that woke up dormant seeds. Within days of the soil food emergency (I caused), hundreds to thousands of weeds would break ground and begin to grow quickly.
To me, June weeds were a nasty nuisance. To soil life, they were like FEMA arriving just in time with some urgently needed food supplies.
Stop the Soil Emergency
From the gardener’s perspective, we can’t see all that microscopic activity. So, it’s hard to recognize that soil life are just acting the same way we would if our communities suddenly ran out of food.
When I began to understand what was really causing weeds (me!), I felt incredible gratitude for the volunteer plants that showed up.
The more I started studying patterns in weed emergence, paying attention over a period of years, and not ripping out every weed — it became clear that most of the weeds were beneficial not just to soil life, but to my goals of soil improvement. And those soil improvements were making it easier for me to be grow an abundant garden!
Watering the Garden
Another thing I do less of, thanks to turning the garden plant by plant, is watering in hot weather. My perennial and biennial plants can go weeks without rain because well-fed soil life and a regular supply of carbon-rich organic matter increase capillary water capacity in soil. That means soil retains water for plant use, rather than losing it to evaporation as the soil warms too quickly.
You’ll still find me out in the garden dipping 2 gallon watering cans into a gravity fed drum and hauling water around to my plants. But I do it in morning or evening when it’s lovely to be in the garden. I also mainly do it for new plants, not every plant in the garden!
Now the garden isn’t the only thing that needs tending in June.
The goats start spending a lot more time in the house about now too. Since goats poop wherever they spend time, I capture more manure from them in the house in summer than any other time of the year.
I sweep it up into a pile twice a day, when I bring them water. Then, on our cooler days, I use 5-gallon bucket to shuttle the contents of the pile to the compost bin.
The ducks also start spending more time in their hose-filled pond. That makes the mud zone of the pond prone to algae as manure accumulates. So, on cloudy days, I use a shovel and a bucket to muck out some of the sludge. I spread that in light layers as fertilizer around our fruiting plants.
Admittedly that’s not the most pleasant task. But our perennial plants love duck muck more than any other organic fertilizer I’ve tried. So, it makes me happy to nourish my plants while keeping our duck environment healthy too.
On our hottest days, the chickens spend more time in their dust baths and shady areas. I frequently join the flock and lounge around in the shade to enjoy their company and admire their beauty.
I started this post with my caring for my dad. Since June is also when we celebrate Father’s day, I’d like to share more on that subject.
My dad is now 81. His brain works a bit better now than in those early days. But he hasn’t recovered most of what he lost. We’ve got routines in place to keep him safe and I’ve adapted to being a care taker with the help of family and friends.
Despite my best efforts, though, my dad still occasionally gets himself into some sticky situations. Like the time I followed the unbelievably strong smell of mouthwash to his room…
Every inch of his floor, except the corner he’d back himself into, was covered with mint green foam! He’d used a dust broom and a brand new bottle of mouthwash to “mop” his floor.
I laugh when things like this happen because the alternative is to dwell on the downside. And my dad, would never want that for me. So, I see humor instead of hardship, find lessons instead of feeling punished, and work with rather than against things I can’t control.
I’ll tell you, though, the most difficult adjustment I’ve had to go through these past six years is not being able to ask my dad for advice. My dad was a lover of ancient philosophy and a seeker of deep wisdom. He struggled with mental health issues that led him on an intellectual quest to make peace with his madness. And it made him a wonderful giver of meaningful advice.
My dad was always concerned about the harm I did to my health and happiness by working too much, too hard, and for the wrong reasons. Many times in my life he gave me some variation of this advice.
His worries were valid. I took on so much work and stress that I ended up crashing and burning after developing life-altering, and sometimes debilitating, asthma. Even so, when I sat down and started writing this, I realized that becoming my dad’s care taker is the thing that finally forced me to take his advice.
And, I wish I could tell him that he was right all along! Unfortunately, with his global aphasia, we can’t have that kind of conversation now.
For the past few decades humans have been breaking productivity barriers using technology and spending more hours of our life working than ever before in our entire human history. But has being more productive made us happier and healthier?
Has it brought us into a deeper relationship with the incredible natural world all around us? Has it allowed us to create more art, beauty, and have more attentive, enriching relationships? Has it protected us from hardships like pandemic viruses, massive inflation, the very real and frightening consequences of climate change, or random brain bleeds that wipe out your memory? Has it even really made us more productive or has it just made us too busy to see that we are wasting our very precious time?
I’ll let you ponder those questions above. But I also mentioned at the start of this post that June is a pivotal month on the homestead. Of course I meant that in reference to the vegetable garden. However, I am also using June to pivot in another way.
Another thing my dad told me is that life is a series of experiences that we should appreciate, learn from, and let go of when the time comes. I’ve been writing almost exclusively about homesteading and gardening for the last 6 years. It was something I could do from home, to earn enough income to cover the essentials, in between taking caring for my dad.
My long-term dream though has always been to publish fiction. Realistically, I can’t keep doing as much homestead/garden writing and educational stuff as I’ve been doing and find time for fiction. So, I’ll be slowing down significantly on teaching, talks, and guest blogging for a while.
I won’t entirely disappear. I’ll post here on Simplestead about once a month. I’ll also put up photos on Instagram regularly. And I have a few events still to look forward to that I’ll share about as we get closer. But overall, I’ll be less active on the homestead/garden education front.
Happy Father’s day to all the dad’s out there – including the other wonderful dad figures in my life (Steve, Uncle Dave, Tim, and my brother Todd). And happy homesteading to everyone!
Stay cool this summer. And remember, just take it plant by plant!