I'm a self-proclaimed “Epicurean homesteader” and writer focused on simple, sustainable living. I garden on about two acres and grows a large variety of annual and perennial edible, medicinal, and ecosystem support plants. I also keeps ducks, dairy goats, chickens, a pet turkey, worms, and (occasionally) pigs. I'm an Extension Master Gardener Volunteer and teaches classes in her community related to edible landscaping and organic gardening. When not growing food, cooking, or composting, I'm likely rocking on the garden swing with my partner Matt Miles, surrounded by our two dogs and four cats. You can also find her me at Simplestead.com.
I recently posted a photo tour of our homestead on myother blog (which is more of a personal journal). I wanted to share the link to that post here too so you can see the power of simple homesteading to transform a landscape.
Before you link out to the photos, though, let me share one bit of homestead advice with you.
Homesteading Doesn’t Have to Be Hard!
Lately I’ve been coming across lots of posts about how hard homesteading is. I read about how much time people spend, their heartbreaks, and all their challenges and expenses. My own experience is very different. I find homesteading relaxing, easy, and infinitely rewarding.
There can be a bit of mental stress occasionally. For example, I don’t love processing animals. So, I eat a lot less meat than I used to. But let’s face it, that’s better for the planet anyway.
And yes, there’s also some work involved. But I do much less work to grow my own food than I used to do to earn the money to buy organic food from the grocery store. There are costs such as to buy compost or supplement feed my livestock. Those costs, though, add up to much less than what I used to spend eating out at poor quality restaurants. Even building things like a duck house or buying trees to plant cost less than what I used to spend just on maintaining a grass lawn.
If you try to add homesteading on top of everything else you already do, it probably is very hard. If you instead take simple steps toward self-sufficiency and let go of old habits to make room for new, it doesn’t have to be hard at all.
Now, here’s that link to the photo tour showing what we managed to do on our homestead over the past 6 years.
Creating a functioning homestead takes time, effort, and resources. It’s not something you should rush into or do without careful planning. Yet, often in the middle of a crises, we feel an overwhelming urgency to make radical changes to increase our sense of security. Unfortunately, that can be the hardest time to get started.
Fear can drive us to make quick decisions that aren’t our best options. Rather than rushing into homesteading without a plan, why not work on a few things you can do right away to feel more at ease in these times of turmoil?
This recent post that I wrote for Morning Chores will help you get started.
Also, below are a few extra resources to help you take some of actions on that list.
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
For one of those 20 items, I mention signing up for a CSA or a local produce subscription from a farmer near you. You can use this resource to find a CSA near you (or to add one if you are a farmer not already on this list).
One of the things I mention on that list is to learn herbal medicine. Personally, I grow medicinal herbs to support my basic health and provide vitamins and minerals my body needs. I use them frequently in cooking and tea blending. I also make herbal infusions, tinctures, and salves for things such as relaxation, treatment of minor injuries, help with digestion, improving gut health, strengthening my immune system in winter and periods of stress, and to get better rest.
These kind of basic, low-risk herbal medicine skills are something that I think any conscientious homesteader can learn through self-study and careful experimentation. However, even for the basics and especially when you move beyond basic skills, it’s extremely important to get your information from sources with long-term practical experience.
For example, I occasionally write articles about herbs with medicinal benefits (when assigned by an editor). I do detailed research and compile information on those herbs, but I don’t offer detailed prescriptive advice.
That’s because I’m not even remotely qualified to tell someone else how to treat a medical condition or to ascertain herb safety for them. It takes years of experience and study to achieve that kind of authority. When you read articles on herbal medicine written by someone like me (e.g. not a 20 year clinical herbal medicine practitioner), you should always treat it as an overview and a starting point for deeper research.
Whole Person Herbal Medicine
I also suggest you be extremely wary of any herbal medicine articles that offer quick fixes to complex health problems. For herbal medicine to be useful, you need to treat the whole person, not just the ailment. It’s not like when you go to the doctor and they give you a pill to bring down your blood pressure.
Herbal medicine practitioners examine your diet, lifestyle, health history, physical symptoms, mental state, and more to determine treatment protocols. There’s also a lot of experimentation to determine dosing and effectiveness. For that you need to work with, and learn from, people who have devoted their lives to the herbal medicine discipline.
Eclectic School of Herbal Medicine
Fortunately, I live just a few miles away from people just like this. Thomas Easley, one of the author’s of The Modern Herbal Dispensatory, is the director and founder of the Eclectic School of Herbal Medicine in Lowgap, North Carolina.
There are other qualified schools out there. But, since I just happen to know a lot about this one I wanted to share their links. If you have links to schools near you, run by extremely qualified life-long herbal medicine practitioners, please feel free to share them by using the comments section below.
By taking a few steps to increase your access to local food, strengthening community relationships, and managing your health at home, you can improve your self-sufficiency and your state of mind in the near term. Then, you’ll be in a good place to tackle the next steps like identifying resources, starting a garden, and bringing home livestock.
Each year in early to mid-spring, my perennial herbs start putting on huge amounts of new growth. In order to keep those plants tame, make them bushier, keep evergreens from becoming woody, and delay premature flowering, harvesting quite a bit of that early growth is necessary.
It seems counter intuitive to harvest heavily when plants are just getting growing for the season. However if you think about it, now while conditions for growth are good, plants have the best chance to recover before summer heat, insect pests, and less rain start causing stress. They also have lots of time to put on new leaves, collect sun and develop deeper, broader reaching roots before winter.
Harvest Spring Herbs Fearlessly
So, if you are new to harvesting perennial herbs, do so fearlessly in spring! You can cut back 30% of your second year herbs, or those that you buy mature from the garden center, in one go. Then, once the plant recovers and begins growing you can harvest intermittently until flowering.
As of today (April 11), in my climate, I’ve started cutting bunches of rosemary, thyme, several mints, and oregano. I also have some perennial spices in the greenhouse that I have been harvesting leaves from. These include allspice and bay laurel leaves. (Allspice is grown commercially for its berries. But, at home the delicious leaves can be used in cooking just like bay laurel or added to tea blends).
I have also started pruning plants like lavender and true hyssop that are grown primarily for their flower buds. By doing this now, I ensure even more flowers as a result of plants branching in response to early pruning.
Harvesting and Pruning Flowering Herbs
Whether you are pruning or harvesting, the process is the same. You want to cut back the top few inches into just a bit of the old growth or right above it. This will spur new growth without risking the health of the plant. Aim to cut just about 1/5th -1/4th of an inch above the last set of leaf nodes before your cut.
Extend Fresh Herb Life
Some of those cut herbs you can save to use fresh. Wrap them in a moist paper towel and put them in your crisper to keep them fresh. Or put the bottom part of the stems in a shallow pan of water and stand them up in the fridge. Just remove a few leaves at the bottom to keep the water from becoming moldy. Change the water every day or two to keep it fresh.
Start New Plants
Incidentally, if you want to start new plants from your cuttings, just leave the fresh herbs in water on your counter. As long as you harvest the entire stem, not just the leaves, many spring harvested herbs will easily grow roots in water.
Change the water daily since it loses freshness faster at room temperature. Once you have roots, replant in the garden or a pot.
Dry Herbs Easily
for herbs you can’t use right away, dry them. Tie herbs in small bunches and hang them in protected area out of direct sunlight. Or, use my favorite method.
Spread a bamboo mat (like those used to roll sushi) over your oven racks and lay herbs flat on the mat. If you’re oven has lit pilot, it will be plenty dry and warm in there to speed up the process. If not, then turn on your oven light to generate extra heat.
When herbs are dry, break the leaves into cooking sized bits in a paper bag. Pick out large stems. Then store the rest in an airtight container. After a few weeks of storing, the aroma of your dried herbs will intensify. That’s when they’re ready to use to make your own herb and spice blends.
If you cut the peelings off your fresh ginger, dry those on your bamboo mat to use as powdered ginger for your baking and other needs. No reason to waste the best part!
Herbs for All Seasons
If you harvest your perennial herbs fresh in spring and preserve them using simple drying and storing techniques, you’ll have a year-round supply with very little work. There is nothing like the crisp, clean flavor of lemon thyme or the savory scents of sage and rosemary in the deep of winter. Savor the flavor of spring anytime with your homegrown preserved herbs!
The COVID-19 virus has made it difficult for grocery stores to keep shelves stocked. I visited the grocery for the first time in a month and was surprised to see so many shelves empty. Toilet paper, of course, was no where to be found. But, other things like flour, eggs, butter, and many fresh vegetables were in short supply too.
Seeing so many of our necessities and favorites missing from the shelves makes us feel especially vulnerable in tough times. So, many people are trying to reclaim a little control for their food supply by starting vegetable gardens.
More gardeners is a great thing. But it’s happening at a hard time. Seed sellers are seeing explosions in sales. Some sellers have had to cut off seed access to non-farmers because demand is so high and supply chains weren’t ready for this much sudden interest. But even in a crisis, with supply shortages, there are still things you can do to get started gardening.
Most importantly, remember that no matter what, the basics are the same. You have to prepare your soil. You have to plan your layout, even if it’s just a temporary. If you aren’t already composting, start now! If you can vermicompost – even better!
Once you do those things, the challenge of finding seeds and plants remains. So, here are some ideas to help you get started right now… even if you can’t get seeds delivered from online sellers.
Ask gardeners you know to share a few seeds (using social distancing pick-ups).
Local vegetable farmers may sell plant starts. (Even those that normally don’t sell plants, might be willing to now. So ask.)
You can also start many things from cuttings including all of your herbs. Get these at the grocery or from friends and neighbors yards (with permission).
You can start sweet potato slips from the sweet potatoes you get at the grocery store. Also, sweet potato vines can be cooked like spinach. So even if you don’t have 120 warm days to grow these for tubers, you can grow them just for the greens.
The seeds in store bought pumpkins, squash, cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, and more can be planted. They are likely hybrids, so the plant you get will be completely different than the one you planted from. But it will most likely still be edible.
You can also use the crowns of celery, romaine lettuce, carrots, parsnips, and others to grow more. Just put the base in water (changed daily) until roots form. Then plant in your garden.
Even though it’s not ideal, you can also use store bought potatoes as seed potatoes. Soak the tubers in water for a couple hours to expunge any growth retardants. Place in a warm location until eyes form. Then use 2-3 ounce pieces as seed potatoes.
Onions, garlic, and ginger from the store can also be planted. The tops of these three plants are edible too. So, you may want to grow them just for the greens. Ginger needs warm weather to grow.
Dried grocery store beans can also be used as seeds. Just plant extras because germination rates will be low.
Even your spice seeds such as dried mustard and coriander can be used in a bind.
Note for items from the grocery store because these are mass harvested, the plants they produces aren’t likely to be the best, most productive, or beautiful. They also have a higher risk for plant pathogens than certified disease free seeds and plants. Yet, in a crisis, if this is all you have to work with, it’s certainly worth trying.
Also, although no one lines to think about it under normal circumstances, diluted urine makes a perfect fertilizer. Don’t apply to plant leaves. Instead apply to the soil. You can read my post about using urine in the garden on Morning Chores.
Also, before you say “gross” think about this fact. All organic garden soil is loaded with the excrement and dead bodies of decomposed of insects, bacteria, fungi, and others. It also contains bird poop from the birds who fly over or eat pests. Oh and, commercial farmers who sell at grocery stores use industrial sewage and feed lot manure to fertilize field crops.
Closing the loop by using waste to add nutrients to soil is the foundation of sustainable agriculture. We just have to be smart about how we do it.
Most soils have some minerals. But many are simply too compacted to grow in. It will take some work, but if you can dig up your soil and mix it with mulched leaves, you can very quickly improve the structure so that you can at least grow some kinds of vegetables.
Ideally, you’ll also add well-aged compost. But that can also be hard to find these days. So, work with what you have.
Care and Share
Especially when gardening in non-ideal conditions, good plant care is the key to getting a crop. Water regularly, weed often, add compost as soon as you have it, mulch with a light layer of grass clippings or paper, and hand pick insects if you see multiples.
Finally, always remember, nature is built on sharing not hoarding. Share your extras. Share what you learn. Then, you’ll not only grow a garden, but a strong community that often shares exactly what you you need in surprising ways.
Choosing the plants that will grow well in your climate, weather, soil type, and garden is quite complicated. That’s why a big part of becoming a good gardener is learning how to read your landscape, understand your conditions, and carefully select plants that are most likely to thrive where you live.
If you want to learn more about all the intricacies involved in careful plant selection, then check out my post on MorningChores.com.
Also, remember to give any new plant a little extra care until you are certain it is happy and habituated to its new home. Start with good soil, water regularly, and fertilize organically with compost, compost tea, or slow-release bagged mixes that won’t be toxic for all the beneficial organisms that live in your soil.
Did you know that you can homestead anywhere? Homesteading is a basic set of life skills that can be practiced wherever you live right now. So don’t let a lack of land limit your dreams. Make up for a shortage of acreage with creativity and access to awesome resources!
Here’s an article I wrote for Morning Chores on the various pros and cons of homesteading in different locations to help you get started.
It can be difficult to think beyond the grocery store, or the farmers market, when deciding what kind of food to grow on your homestead. Every recipe we know, every cookbook we have, tend to rely only on the readily available ingredients most of us can access. Yet, the most thrilling part about having your own garden is that you are not limited to the short list of ingredients available to the average shopper.
These more diverse, colorful and flavorful foods tend to have not only more utility in fine cooking, but also more nutrient content. Deeper colors, richer more complex taste profiles, and varied textures are all indicators of the wholesomeness of your food. This is what you really want from your potager – better health and the richness and beauty of an abundantly interesting array of culinary delights.
So the first advice I am going to give you is not to shop for seeds at the seed racks at big box stores. They are fine for a first year garden when you are just trying to learn a few skills and improve your soil .
In the second year, though, seek seeds from seed saving organizations that act as the keepers of our culinary legacies. Heirloom, open-pollinated seeds have been handed down for generations. Those seeds carry not only the genetic information to make a new plant, but also the history of their relationship with gardeners over many generations.
There are lots of great organizations out there offering seeds. Below are a few I use frequently. This list is not exclusive and I will happily add others if you have suggestions you love.
My next bit of advice is to grow the ingredients that greatly enhance the quality and pleasure of your meals. For example, if you plan to grow potatoes, grow gourmet fingerlings, or purple varieties lower in starch and higher in anthocyanins, or German styles with more complex flavors.
If you adore artichokes, then start them in pots indoors and transplant outside so you can get a crop the first year. If your grandmother grew pickling cucumbers that make you feel like a child at heart, then plant that variety even if they take are not as productive as new hybrids.
Growing what you love, with loving care, is the absolute best way to improve your gardening skills. Once you become an excellent vegetable gardener, it’s quite simple to scale up and grow a production garden for greater self-sufficient. Until you’ve mastered the basics though, focus on plants that make you want to fine tune your skills because they are meaningful to you.
Growing Beyond the Grocery Store
My last bit of advice is to spend a little time understanding the full scope of plants you can grow at home. Because grocery stores only carry what stores and sells well, and farmers markets can only carry the variety their customers will readily buy, trying to build a garden around what you see in those locations is very limiting.
Instead, do some research into all the various kinds of foods you can potentially grow. Read old, pre-grocery tore recipe books for inspiration on how to use less common ingredients. Embrace authentic ethnically varied and obscure culinary cookbooks.
To get you started, here’s a list of the kinds of things you might want to consider growing in your potager. Once you narrow down this list to what you might want to grow in your potager, then you’ll still need to look around for the specific varieties that speak to you and are well-suited to your climate.
Alliums – hard neck garlic with scapes, soft neck garlic for storing, leeks, storing onions, bunching onions, torpedo onions, flat onions, multiplier onions, Egyptian walking onions, shallots, garlic chives, society garlic, and common chives are all great choices for a potager.
Artichokes – Start indoors and grow as annuals in cold climates. Grow as perennials in USDA Hardiness Zone 7b and above.
Arugula – Grow the cultivated varieties as annuals and Sylvetta as a perennial.
Asparagus – Buy crowns or start from seed. Mary Washington is the only heirloom that is commonly found as 2 year crowns. Start some of those, then also start some Precoce D’argenteuil or Conovers Colossal from seed for more variety. Once these get going, they self seed and keep you stocked with new plants when you need them.
Beans – There are so many kinds of beans it’s amazing. Classic canning beans, filet beans, runners, half-runners, drying, broad, garbanzo, long, turtle, lima, butter, soy, and more. Some even come in bush form so you don’t need to trellis. Try a couple types each year to expand your bean expertise.
Beets – These also come in a host of colors, shapes, and best uses. There are varieties that are great for fermenting or storage, others best fresh in salads, and some are used to make sugar. Some make tastier tops. Beets only take 60-75 days, so they are a good choice to try several kinds of to find your favorites.
Broccoli – We’re used to the large headed types that we get at the grocery store. At home you can grow multi-heading varieties that produce one larger head followed by lots of small heads. You can grow rapini broccoli with edible flowers or Romanesco heads that simulate the Fibonacci spiral.
Brussels sprouts – In warm climates, these are easier to grow in fall than spring. But it’s worth it because you can get much tastier and more colorful varieties than most markets sell.
Cabbage – There are lost more styles of cabbage than most people realize. There are heading and non-heading types, early maturing, fresh eating, long-storing, multi-colored, conical, savoy-leafed, and more. Once you start growing heirloom cabbage at home, you’ll understand why this is one of the mot versatile foods you can grow.
Carrots – Purple, yellow, red, short, fat, long, squarish, narrow, baby, and more carrot options exist for the home grower. You can also use the tops in stocks and as garnish.
Cauliflower – This comes in a variety of colors like purple, yellow, and green. There are even varieties you can grow in warm climates.
Celery – Stalk celery can be a pain to grow unless you perennialize it in a pot and harvest unblanched stalks as needed. But leaf celery is just as tasty and grows as easily as kale. Celeriac is root celery that grows well in cold climates and makes for a perfect mashed potato substitute or creamed soup base.
Chard – This is wonderful in just about any garden. There are so many varieties. Bright lights is fun for color. Fordham is great for large leaves, Perpetual spinach chard is my favorite for a cooked spinach substitute in warmer weather.
Chicory – This family includes gourmet favorites like radicchio, endive, frisee. It also includes root chicory which makes a great coffee substitute.
Corn – Sweet corn is nice, but nothing beats a homegrown polenta with drying corn. Homegrown popcorn is tons of fun too. There are hundreds of heirloom corn varieties. But, you’ll need to plant enough for cross pollination. Plus, you’ll want to time planting when GMOs in your area won’t interfere.
Cukes – Want to grow your own cornichons, make cucumber soup, garnish your salads, make food art, ferment pickles, and more? You can do it all with the right kinds of cucumbers. I usually grow two varieties a year for fun. Protect the stem from borers with aluminum foil and use packing tape to remove squash bug eggs and nymphs from your plants.
Greens – I have a seedbox that I call “greens”. This is where I store an endless variety of leafy vegetables that I cut for a continuous harvest of salad. My collection includes collards, cresses (water, upland, and garden cress), all sorts of lettuce, kale, mustard, mizuna, tatsoi, bok choy, spinach, false spinaches like New Zealand and Malabar, sorrel, oyster plant, Seven Top turnips, purslane, mache, and more. Many of these also work amazingly well for stir-fry dishes and saute’s. (I tend to grow these in smaller quantities than my staple greens like chard, arugula, or cabbage so that’s why I lump them together as greens rather than giving them their own line item.)
Fattened/modified stems – Many plants that we think of as “roots” are really fattened, modified stems. Potatoes for example are a fattened underground stem that roots grow below. Ginger, galangal, and turmeric are referred to as rhizomes, but these too are just a variation on a fattened stem. Wasabi, kohlrabi, Jerusalem artichokes, bulb fennel, and yams are other examples of fattened stems you can grow in your potager in the right conditions. (Note yams and sweet potatoes are two different plants, and sweet potatoes are a root).
Legumes – Besides beans, there are also all sorts of other legume family plants to consider. Snow peas, snap peas, shelling peas, pea tendrils, cowpeas, crowder peas, fenugreek, lentils, alfalfa, peanuts, and beneficial flowers like lupines, clover, and sweat pea.
Melons – Watermelons, cantaloupe, muskmelon, honeydew, are all part of the squash family (see below) but they are on the fruity side of the spectrum and make delicious warm season low calorie treats.
Nightshades – This family includes so many garden favorites that have similar growing requirements including tomatoes, sweet or spicy peppers for fresh or dried eating, ground cherries, tomatillos, and eggplant.
Rustic roots – Salsify, turnips, rutabaga, parsnips, parsley root, horseradish, burdock, daikon, radish, Chinese yam, yacon, skirret, dandelion, and sweet potatoes are some lovely rustic roots that are easy to grow in the right climate.
Other squash family plants – Summer squash, winter squash, luffa, gourds, bitter melon, and pumpkins all fall into this basic plant group along with the cukes and melons already mentioned. These plants take lots of room unless you choose compact varieties or make use of vertical space. But they are highly productive and fun to grow. See the tips under cucumbers for insect prevention.
Big impact plants – Okra, rhubarb, cardoon, hibiscus (for tea), hops, moringa, hemp (if legal), and mammoth sunflowers for seeds are a few plants that take a fair amount of room, but offer big aesthetic impact and tasty treats in a potager.
Herbs – The classics like sweet basil, dill, cilantro, parsley, chives, mint, rosemary, thyme, sage, oregano, and lavender are wonderful. But don’t forget epazote, licorice, Mexican marigold, lovage, culantro, methi, marjoram, leaf curry, fennel, hyssop, bay, anise, chervil, rue, French tarragon, lemon verbena, savory, and more.
Edible flowers – Pineapple sage, roses (flowers and hips), nasturtium, pansy, chrysanthemums, borage (cooked greens are edible too), honeysuckle, hollyhocks, and more.
Spices – Cumin, coriander, caraway, mustard seed, nigella, poppy, sesame, and anise for seed are some easy to grow spice plants that add stunning flower displays to a garden.
Seed Crops – Flax for seeds, ancient wheat, amaranth, quinoa, and other grains offer long-standing beauty and may even give you a tiny crop to use to top your salads or add interest to rice preparations.
Small fruits – Lots of dwarf fruits grow well in pots and can add interesting details and focal points to a potager. Blueberries which require more acidic soil than most vegetables can be grown in pots. Citrus that needs to be overwintered inside can adorn a potager in warm weather in large pots. Espaliered fruits like apples and pears can line paths. Strawberries fit in lots of places. Grapes, blackberries, and raspberries can be trained on fences. Figs, elderberry, goji, and hazelnut can be grown as shrubs and kept compact in size.
Garden helpers – Plants like marigolds, comfrey, zinnia, and flowering mints just seem to benefit all gardens. Also perennial flowers like echinacea, black-eyed susans, coreopsis, goldenrod, and others are well-loved by wildlife in my garden.
Cover crops – Whenever your garden is not planted with vegetables or flowers, then you’ll want to use cover crops to protect your soil. The easiest to start with are mustard in early spring, buckwheat in hot weather, and crimson clover in fall to overwinter. Once you get an understanding of those, then move on to winter wheat, Austrian peas, vetch, millet, sundangrass, annual rye, and barley.
I hope this list and the seed resources above will inspire you to think beyond the basics and grow a large variety of diverse and interesting foods and plants in your potager. Happy gardening!
If you are new to gardening and looking for a quick and easy tool to help you decide what to plant when, check out this new planting calendar. The programming team at Morning Chores developed it. Then, I helped refine some planting dates and adapt it to work for many different climates.
This is a perfect starting point for planning your own planting calendar. Plus, it’s easy to print so you can mark it up with your actual dates.
If you like this calculator, then you may also want to check out a few other cool calculators at Morning Chores.