Pathways For Your Homestead Potager

When you see past the pretty flowers and profuse plantings, you’ll discover that every garden has bones and secrets buried beneath. A garden’s design and its underlying infrastructure dictate how well it works and how much work it takes to maintain that garden.

The Beaten Path

For example, when I visit a garden that has large pathways that have been mowed practically to the ground, I see more work than I would ever want to do.

I see a lawnmower that has to be maintained with regular oil changes, blade sharpening, spark plug replacements, and cans of gas stinking up my car when I haul them. I see the necessity of a large storage area to hide and protect that unsightly and overly loud machine.

Those wide, shorn walkways also tell me weeds must be rampant because the soil is compacted from constant mowing. The operator of the machine must mow often to maintain the illusion of uniformity with weeds erupting at erratic rates.  Either that, or they are spraying weed killers that poison the soil.

Paths like that also imply precarious health for the plants that grow along the edges. Those poor path-bound plants can only expand their root system away from the paths and not into them. That means, the garden beds themselves are the only source of moisture and fertility to support plant growth. That inevitably leads to more work caring for the plants.

Yes, I also see an orderliness that does seem attractive at first glance. But the deeper you look, the more you realize those paths aren’t just well-maintained. They are tamed and tortured. They are beaten into submission for an aesthetic ideal that undermines the health of the rest of the garden.

Paths like that, and the kind of thinking that underlies them, are the crux of our current climate crisis and our poor preparation for ever-increasing extreme weather events. Those paths aim to subdue nature, not cooperate with it.

The Simple Path

If you want to grow a simple garden, that produces abundant, nourishing food and beauty, you need to leave those beaten paths out of your design. Instead, you want paths that nourish your soil, connect spaces, discourage soil compaction, and invite life into the garden.

Now, this is your garden and you can have whatever kinds of paths you want. So, if you have your heart set on low cut grass and broad aisles, that is entirely your prerogative. The point of this website, though, is to offer you solutions that help you create a simple homestead that will get better with each simple step you take.

If you want to take the simple approach and use your paths to improve the natural health of  your garden over time, I suggest these options.

Option 1: Nutrient Swales

Nutrient Swales for Garden Paths

A swale is basically an indention in the soil that causes water to flow into it. Most of the time, you make these “on contour”.  On contour simply means that you create them in such a way as to catch and keep water in place, rather than directing downward like a water slide. The opposite of on contour swales are gullies that cause water to rush downhill.

On contour swales are kind of like long thin ponds. However, unlike a pond the goal of this kind of swale is to help water percolate into the ground. You don’t want to actually have standing water in your swales for more than a short period of time.

In the garden, we can use this idea of an on contour swale to make our paths. In dry areas, those swales will collect water and send them into the soil to be saved for later use. In wet areas, those swales offer a place for water to drain off the beds and be moved below the level of the more tender plant roots.

In our gardens though, we don’t want to be walking through pools of water or mud to get to our beds. So we need to use a slightly modified version of the on contour swale. I call these nutrient swales.

Here’s how I make them.

Step 1: Make the Swale

Dig the Swales.JPG

You start by digging out the top soil from your paths and putting it on your garden bed.  Dig across slopes so swales become like bowls to catch the downward flowing rain.

This process increases the amount of soil you have in your beds. But it also creates that indentation to catch water. The beds get higher and that paths are a few inches (or more) below the level of the bed. That creates the water catchment zone.

Note: If your paths aren’t quite on contour, e.g. not quite level, you can fix that by how you dig your swale. In areas where water might start to run like a water slide, dig the uphill side deeper. Then leave soil in place where the water would normally start to run faster. That creates  a bit of a speed bump in the swale that holds the flow in the deeper area.

Step 2: Fill with Uncomposted Organic Matter

Fill with non composted organic matter

Next, backfill the paths with uncomposted organic matter. If you have a lot of topsoil and your paths are deep (e.g. at least 8-12 inches),  you can start by backfilling with all your kitchen scraps and whatever you have been saving in your compost bucket.  This essentially becomes a compost trench and is one of the easiest ways to make compost and improve soil quickly.

If you don’t have a lot of food scrap waste, and you need to fill deep swales, you can also use branches and decaying woody material. Then you can cover this with the other compost materials you have. It works as a kind of in ground hugelkultur, breaking down over time and feeding the soil for a few years.

Wood to Fill Swale

For the top six inches, backfill with whatever greens and browns you are able to source in large quantities. Old hay or straw, mulched yard leaves, grass clippings, newspaper, shredded office paper, cardboard, paper bags, and more all work well.

If you already have livestock, dirty litter works perfect filling in your paths. In my case, I use the litter from my goat barn because it has a mix of hay, straw, goat poop, and urine that cover my paths and nourish neighboring beds as they compost.

If you don’t have livestock, some farmers are happy to have you clean out their barns for them and let you take all that organic matter. Some cities or civic organizations also offer free leaf litter or municipal compost at certain times of the year.

Worst case scenario, you may have to buy some inexpensive filler such as straw bales and composted cow manure.  This is an absolutely worthwhile investment in a new garden.

Step 3: Cover the Organic Matter

After I have filled the swales back up to level with all that good organic matter, I wait a few days until the materials settle.  Then, I top the paths of with some kind of wood mulch.

The mulch you can get free when the electric company cuts trees in your area is awesome for paths. Shredded hardwood, bark, wood chips, and more all work well for this.

If you don’t have access to free or inexpensive wood mulch, you can use pine shavings, bark, or needles. Saw dust is another possible option. Even old carpets turned upside down and cut to the size of your path will work.

You just need to create a permeable surface that will slow down weed growth and be comfortable and safe for you to walk on. Ideally this material will last at least a year before it decays into compost.

Maintenance: Top off Your Paths

As needed you can top off your paths with new organic matter to bring them back up to level with the beds. I tend to fill mine annually in late-winter before I start preparing my beds for planting.  This has the added benefit of increasing the temperature of the soil if the paths start to heat up from composting activity.  

Benefits of Nutrient Swale Paths

These paths promote good drainage. They feed the soil in your garden beds because soil inhabitants move between the paths and the beds transporting nutrients into the beds. They store water and offer your plants additional room to expand during drought or if soil nutrients in the beds are lacking.

They do require a bit of work up front. However as long as you go heavy on the organic matter and covering, they offer wonderful weed control and reduce the need for watering your beds. They also give you an easy way to compost large quantities of materials without having to build or turn a pile.

Overall, this method saves tons of time on gardening throughout the year while improving your soil. I use it in all of my gardens.

Also note: For things you bokashi, your deeper garden path swales make a great place to bury those bokashied items too!

Option 2: Permeable Rock Paths

Permeable Rock Paths

For some of my wider paths that I can’t source enough organic matter to fill, I still dig out the topsoil and use it on beds. Then I cover those beds with rocks that I dig out or collect from other areas of the property.

Rocks, contrary to popular belief, do not reduce weed pressure. Those rocks are a perfect hiding place for soil life and weed seeds. Each time it rains, any dust or soil that has accumulated on the rocks, gets washed into the crevices where soil inhabitants turn those bits of dirt into gummy, growth-promoting goodness.

In fact, in areas with too little soil to dig, I love to cover those places with rocks to build soil.  Then a few years later, I move the rocks somewhere else and plant cover crops where the rocks were.

The thing rocks are really good for is making weeds stand out.  If you see them and pull them early, before the deep tap roots get established, you can reduce work.  Also, since the rocks help hold moisture in the soil, those weeds are easier to pull than in dry, compacted soil.

Those rocks warm and dry faster. They also shed water and promote drainage.  So, they melt snow and become walkable sooner than grass does.

I never put weed mat under my rocks any more. Weed mat simply gives aggressive weeds something easy to anchor to. It creates more work than it’s worth.

Also, if you don’t have rocks, things like oyster shells gleaned from seafood restaurants and corks from wineries also make for interesting permeable paths.  The oyster shells stink at first, but that dissipates quickly.

Option 3: Weed to Meadow Paths

Yep, you read that right. I also like to use weeds in my paths. If you steal the topsoil from your paths to put on your beds, weeds will eventually come. They will grow quickly to help heal that disturbed land.

I let them grow, but I mow them with a push mower weekly to keep them from flowering. I do pull out any of the branching grasses, like crabgrass, since those can quickly become more work than they are worth in terms of healing your soil.

If weeds start to get too aggressive in any particular area I cover them with a piece of old carpet, the leg of a pair of jeans weighted with rocks, or plastic bags (careful plastic can be slippery). That keeps the weeds from seeding into the garden beds and creating more work long term.

Once you get a bit of topsoil back in those rows (thanks to the weeds doing their healing work), you can plant lawn clover as your grass substitute. When you get a bit more soil back from the clover,  plant meadow grasses.  Try to find perennial grasses that are native to your area or that grow well in your climate.

Keep your paths narrow to reduce maintenance. If using a push mower, paths should be as wide as your mower so you only need to make one pass on each row.  If using a weed trimmer or hand scythe, then make paths only as wide as you need them to walk and squat comfortably for gardening.

Also, except as necessary to prevent weeds from flowering and seeding out, do not mow your paths lower than 4 inches tall. Taller top growth, and less frequent mowing, promotes deeper roots. Deeper roots allow water to percolate into the soil and promote better drainage.

This option is lowest on my list because it does take a bit more work on a regular basis than the other two. Yet, its still a lot more simple than trying to maintain lush lawns using chemicals, motorized mowers, and more as you see in more conventional gardens.

Homework and Your Next Simple Step

Take some time to think about the kind of paths you want in your homestead potager. Determine if they support the overall health of your garden. Consider the materials you have available or can free or cheaply source near you.

Hang on to that information and those ideas for the next post on garden beds. Beds and paths must work together to create a cohesive environment for plants to thrive. So, in our next post, we’ll cover some bed designs that work well for a simple homestead potager garden.

Then, in the post right after that, we’ll finalize our design so we can get to work building a potager garden!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Plan Your Homestead Potager Garden Location

A potager garden is a place to grow food, skills, and beauty. You can make one just about anywhere, in a lot as small as a few hundred square feet. However, when you spend a little time carefully considering your location and planning your design, your job as a gardener becomes a whole lot easier.

I have no idea what your land looks like or how much space you have to work with. So, I can’t give you specific recommendations on the best location for your garden. However, these are the considerations I prioritize in my garden planning.

1. Obstacles

Most homes have underground power, cable, other lines, or plumbing features (well, septic tank, etc.) that need to be factored into garden planning. Additionally, many properties have zones of easement (e.g. sidewalks or meter reading access) that can impact your choice about where to situate your garden.

Some communities or home owners associations have regulations that might dictate the location of your garden. Check with the appropriate parties to identify any of these regulatory obstacles.

Potential pest problems are another kind of obstacle to consider. Planning your garden in an existing deer path, near heavy squirrel activity, or where household pets tend to potty will necessitate extra measures to secure your garden. Choosing less traveled areas to locate your garden gives you a better starting point to make pest prevention easier.

Don’t forget those potentially pest-like neighbors too. If you happen to live near to someone who might take umbrage or derail your gardening efforts, try to plan around them to keep the peace.

2. Sunlight

For me, sunlight is the one resource I can’t reasonably or sustainably create in a vegetable garden. The sun is 93,000,000 miles away from us. By the time its rays reach us, it has already pierced through the darkest, deepest space.

It bridges that distance in about 8 minutes and 20 seconds, soaring toward us constantly, at the speed of light. Even on cloudy days, though filtered, its presence can be felt. That’s some incredibly powerful stuff!

Sunlight is not only a heat and light source, but also a food source for plants. Plants are designed to absorb the sun’s energy and convert it into sugars to feed themselves and the fungi living in the soil.

You really need full sun to get good food production in your potager garden. There are some edible plants that grow in partial shade. But you aren’t likely to be able to grow large amounts of vegetables that way.  (You can grow other food sources like mushrooms, but we’ll get to that later in the series).

Don’t just guess whether your site has enough sun. Bathe in the sunlight of your potential garden locations. Do this as if you are a plant, eating up those rays, to make sugars to send to your roots.

Feel the sun at first light, high noon, late afternoon. Lay down on the ground, at the level of a plant to fully experience it.

Does the sun feel strong in the morning? Is it limited at certain times of the day by your house, a fence, a tree, a hedge, your parked car? Does it become scorching mid-day even when it’s chilly out? Try different locations and note differences.

Try to imagine which plot plants will be best for your plants.

Shade calculator

The angle of the sun is also very different from summer to winter and in between. If you aren’t sure what your sun and shade patterns are like during different seasons of the year, then you may also want to use some online tools to make sure you’ll have full sun year round.

– Online Sun/Shade Planning Tool

I most recently used Sunearthtools.com.  You enter your address and choose “Sun Position” from the menu.  Then, alternate between the shade path and sun rays mode. Update the dates to see what your sun and shade patterns will look like at various times of the year.

If you have large trees, sheds, fences, or other obstacles in your landscape, move the center yellow bubble on top of those obstacles.  That will allow you to see the shade profile for those objects relative to locations you are considering for your garden.

When you have a good idea of your sun and shade patterns, then ask yourself this.  Will my future plants thrive in the sunlight of this location?

3. Wind

Once you have narrowed down your some ideal garden locations based on your availability of sunlight, the next consideration is wind. Wind can severely stunt and slow plant growth. Strong winds can even pull young transplanted seedlings from the ground before they have a chance to anchor into the soil.

There are things you can do to mitigate wind, such as put up a wall or plant a shrub windbreak. However, if your wall or windbreak would then shade your garden, that’s not going to work.

Choosing a location that is already protected from wind is ideal.  Alternatively, choosing a location that allows for planting or erecting a wind break without obstructing sun can also work well.

4. Microclimates

Every property has microclimates.  Slopes, timing of sun, hardscapes, water surfaces, and more all change the climate near to the surface of the soil.

Sometimes microclimates are beneficial.  For example, I grow my rosemary bed on the south side of my house, close to our gravel driveway.  This helps keep the rosemary warmer in winter so I don’t get so much damage during our cold weather.

I wouldn’t want to grow lettuce there though. Since it can be as much as 15 degrees warmer on a hot spring day, it might make my lettuce bolt.

In general, for a vegetable garden, you want to avoid things like frost pockets. Try to  take advantage or morning sun. Some shade in late afternoon usually isn’t an issue if you’ve already had 6-8 hours of full sun.

Save hot spots for your Mediterranean plants. Choose cooler, frost-free locations, if you have lots of ups and downs in your weather in spring and summer.

5. Access to Water

For ideal growth rates, plants need soil that is consistently moist. Growing in compost and using mulch will minimize the need for watering.  However, there will still be times such as when planting seeds or extended droughts when watering is necessary.

Choosing a garden location with access to water will make your job easier. This doesn’t necessarily need to be from a house hose.

If you have structures with roofs and gutters on your property, you can harvest rain water. If you have a spring, that also makes a potential source of water.

If you have or plan to build a pond, siting your garden down hill from your pond allows for gravity fed water systems. If you have enough room, and won’t shade your garden beds, you could even consider a roof over your compost area to harvest rain water.

Planning for water collection or access will make gardening much less work in the long-term.

6. Drainage

“Good drainage” is a term we use often in vegetable gardening.  It essentially means water doesn’t pool and stagnate.  It also means water doesn’t run through like a faucet and wash away soil.

– Too Flat

Completely flat locations are often zones for water pooling in extreme rain. However, you can use techniques like creating mounded or raised beds to help promote better flow on flat surfaces.

– Too Steep

Overly steeped slopes move water too quickly and often erode soils.  In that case, you need to create terraced beds to help catch water and prevent erosion.

– Too Low

Bottom land, such as the low point between other slopes, is often good to use in extremely dry climates.  However, the risk is that big storms will over-saturate that area and create boggy, conditions.  If I have a choice, I prefer to build a garden a bit upslope from the bottom land.

– Just Right

For me, the ideal garden location is on a slight slope. That way I can use my garden paths and gravity to move excess water through the garden and harvest it when and were I need it.

7. Proximity to the Kitchen

The closer you can get your potager to your kitchen, the easier it will be to harvest vegetables when you need them. If your potager starts right out the door nearest to your kitchen, then you can dash out when you need to and collect herbs, fresh cut lettuce, ripe tomatoes, and more.

8. Soil Quality

I put soil quality low on my list because I know I can rapidly improve soil using compost. However, if you have a location which meets all the criteria above and already has some good, loamy top soil, then you are in luck!

If you have toxic soil, that would be a factor to consider. There are things you can do like building raised keyhole beds, even over toxic soil. But that takes more work.

9. Beauty

To the extent possible a potager garden should also be integrated into your landscape to enhance the beauty of your home. If you can locate it near to some beautiful flowering trees, against a backdrop of mature evergreens, or where you have other existing landscape features, that can enhance your experience while gardening.

If you have to start it in the middle of what is currently a boring lawn, that works too. But you’ll probably want to do some things to soften the edges later, like maybe add some pollinator plots all around.

You can always create beauty as you go. But, integrating your garden into your existing landscape can get you there faster.

The Simplestead Potager

Future Site of Simplestead Potager

The location I chose for starting the Simplestead potager garden currently has a view of our parking area. It’s a bit more sloped than is ideal. But, the sun is perfect. Our house  blocks much of the wind.

We have a house hose for watering. We also have rain barrels on the house gutters that can be in this garden.

There’s a peach trees growing between the cars and the garden. That can form the start of a plant hedge to help integrate the garden into the landscape and hide our vehicles.

Deer graze nearby. However, it’s far enough out of their normal path that I should still be able to keep them out of the garden. I used to keep Pekin ducks in that area, so I already have a 40 inch fence around the space.

The fence is just made of chicken wire and has large gaps at the bottom. I can use it to start, but I’ll need to make some improvements for it to be useful for pest prevention.

Also, the gate is at the farthest end from our house door. So, I may want to move the gate to save some steps between the kitchen and access to the garden.

Homework Assignment No. 2

Consider the factors explained above. Spend some time studying your landscape.  Determine a suitable location to start your potager. Make sure to include a little extra room for some flowers and herbs, a place to sit, and your compost pile.

Then, mark off that area using posts, chairs, buckets, or whatever you have available. Visit the site of your future garden several times a day. Start to imagine how your garden will look there when it is mature.

When you are sure the location you’ve chosen is the right home for your new homestead potager, then you’ll be ready to move on to the next simple step in making a potager garden.

The Perfect Place for Your Potager

Very few of us will have the perfect place for our potager. Most of us will have to make the best choice possible given the conditions we have to work with. Once you have made a careful, conscientious choice though, then know in your mind and your heart that you can make that place absolutely perfect for your needs.

Starting a Homestead Potager

I strongly believe that all in-ground homestead vegetable gardens should be “potagers”. Potager is a French word that embodies the idea of both a functional kitchen garden and a beautiful space that allows for creative expression and cultivation of your gardening skills.

Potagers have lots of vegetables, of course. However, they often include plants to make tea, culinary herbs, flowers, fruits, nuts, perennial edibles, medicinal plants for health and immune support, and more. They are also designed, not just for function, but for the pleasure of being in them.

The Lure of the Potager

So many of us “homesteader types” are attracted to this kind of garden because we don’t just want to grow food, we want to cultivate beauty all around us. Yet, I think there are deeper, more naturally-driven reasons why we dream of potagers and not just endless rows of high-calorie field crops.

Even when we are new to gardening, some part of our intuition recognizes that vegetables grow better in a community of other plants and wild life. Our souls and our soils don’t like barren, disturbed landscapes that give way to machine-planted monocrops.

We want a diversity of color, leaf-texture, heights, widths, states of growth – new, ready to harvest, continuously giving plants – and the sounds of birds, frogs, and insects singing. We want decorative features like a bird bath, raised beds, pollinator houses, colorful containers, beautiful and functional trellises and arbors, and color combinations that compliment each other.

Somehow we also just know that gardening does not require expensive, complicated equipment that takes more time and money to maintain than a hand-cultivated garden does. We long to step back in time to simpler methods, using our hands, our hearts, and our brains instead of machines, manipulated seeds, and manufactured goods.

What we want, is to grow our gardens in such a way that each year our soil gets better, we produce more bounty  with less work, and our food production become more manageable over time.

The Practicality of the Potager

These are all beautiful and realistic desires for your homestead potager. The concept of a potager pre-dates the industrial revolution. It relies on human, hand-scale work, using a few quality tools, and simple garden innovations. The emphasis is on beauty and productivity, in balance.

Yet, there’s also another practical reason for making your garden not only a place to grow food, but a potager-style paradise of plenty.

Nobody wants to cook in a dirty, disorganized kitchen. So, we order our kitchens in ways that work for us. We add decorative details to make us feel at home. We pick plates and pots that do their job, but also make us want to use them. We paint our walls, put up pictures, use interesting containers to hold our tools.

Well, the same should hold true for your garden. Yes, a garden has to function, just as kitchen does. We can’t sacrifice utility for the sake of charm. Yet, within reason, a garden must also be beautiful and inviting to its owner. It must draw us in and make us want to stay awhile.

Planning your garden to be a potager is not only attractive, but imminently practical because its beauty will entice you to it. And your gardening skills will increase in direct relation to the amount of time you spend enjoying your potager.

The Self-Sufficient Garden

A lot of people, particularly in the country, will just till up some earth in a sunny spot, spread some fertilizer, and plant some seeds. They might put in a few rows of tomatoes, a bit of lettuce, some summer squash, maybe some pumpkin, watermelon, okra, or corn.

There is a certain beauty and utility to this kind of gardening at first. Yet within a few years, the soil depletes, the pests move in, the weeds win. The yields go down, the ground gets harder, and gardening stops being worth the time it takes to do it.

That is not the kind of garden I want for you. I want something enduring, that gets better and better each time you grow it.

A Simple Garden Path

The new garden I am starting for the purpose of sharing the experience with you here on Simplestead will be a “no till” garden. I will borrow some top soil from my garden paths to add to my garden beds. Otherwise, I will not dig up my garden beds.

– The Virtues of Not Tilling

  • I will not release the years and years of wild, dormant seeds just waiting to see the light of day and feel a hint of rain.
  • I will not unnecessarily disturb the unbelievable diversity of lifeforms that live happily in my tiny bit of top soil.
  • I will not expose all my soil nutrients to air and water and cause them to wash away before my plants are large enough to access them.
  • I will not cause my soil to become dry by digging up all the moist under parts and letting them be deprived of water by the wind and sun.
  • I will not waste my time doing something that is unnecessary, overly complicated, and will end up making me dependent on things like weed killer, fertilizer, and pesticides long-term.

– Nature Assisted

Instead of tilling, my simple garden will be built upon what nature has started. I’ll use the lessons nature has taught — only more intensely applied — to grow food in just a couple months.

In particular, I’ll be using compost applied on top of beds and mulch (e.g. uncomposted organic matter like grass clippings or old hay) on top of paths. Any other garden amendments applied will also be made with organic matter that promotes soil health.

– Initial Purchases for Long-Term Self-Sufficiency

I will buy a few things to get my garden started. For example, I’ll buy a whole bunch of compost to start my beds. After this initial investment, though, I’ll manage the beds using just the compost I can make.

I’ll also buy a few soil amendments until I can get my own nutrient production systems in place. Most soils are so eroded and deficient in nutrients that you need to give them a jump start for the first couple years.

Seeds, a few hand-tools, one-time investments in infrastructure (e.g. storage shed, cold-frames, personal decorative items, etc.) may also take up some financial resources in the early years.

Within 3 years, though, the garden will grow on homestead resources alone. I will nourish my garden with the compost and amendment production systems I put in place. In return, my garden will nourish me with food, beauty, good health, and entertainment.

Other Ways To Garden

There are lots of other ways to garden successfully. Square foot gardening, hydroponics, straw bales, aquaponics, and more are wonderful, efficient ways to grow vegetables. They generally use fewer resources and cause much less environmental harm than conventional farming does. They also grow lots of tasty, healthy food, with minimal work.

Here at Simplestead though, simple self-sufficiency is the goal. Those other gardening methods are simple to create and to use. However, they rely on complex supply chains and continuous inputs from outside the homestead.

In other words, there is hidden complexity in them. I do think they are wonderful for many people. I also really appreciate that they introduce so many people into the joy and beauty of growing your own food at home.  They just don’t quite fit the mold for long-term self-sufficiency.

For that reason, our next several posts will revolve around no till, compost and organic matter driven, garden creation. Later in the series, I will also cover container gardening using homestead fertility systems. And don’t worry, we’ll also get into perennials, orchards, and livestock in future posts too!

For now, though, let’s recap what we’ve covered so we’re ready to move forward with creating a new potager garden!

Simplestead Review

If you’ve been following the series, then you have been collecting your compost materials, started a vermicompost bin, and may even be implementing your bokashi system to increase your compost potential.

– Garden Size

You probably have a good sense about how many square feet of garden space you’ll be able to support with your current compost capacity. (Remember, each 5 gallon bucket you fill earns you a square foot of garden space.)

– Observation and Resource Identification

You’ve also started to hone your observation skills and get a feel for your weather. Plus, you’ve looked around at the tools and abundant resources you have already or in your area.

– Seed Germination

You may have even sprouted a few seeds on your counter to get a sense of how seeds grow. Now, don’t worry if all those grocery store beans you tried to start didn’t all sprout.  That too was an important lesson!

Seeds for growing food have to be carefully stored and used within certain time frames so that they are viable for planting. The fact that any of your “seeds” from the supermarket sprouted (and I am sure they did) is a testament to your care and the power of plants to find ways to survive.

Once we get our garden planned and break ground, we’ll get a lot deeper into seed starting, seedling care, and eventually seed saving in the series.

– The Homestead Dream

Even if you didn’t sprout actual seeds, the most important thing is that you have sprouted your homestead dreams and are now growing them into reality.  All of these early exercises and tasks have been simple. Yet, your efforts have already prepared you for the next phase of your homestead creation.

Starting a Homestead Garden

keyhole garden

Starting a garden is just a series of simple steps, one after another. I am going to be starting a brand new garden and sharing the experience with you to help you through the process.

Your garden will be different than mine because it will be a reflection of your tastes, climate, landscape, and available resources. Still our techniques, processes, and considerations are similar despite our regional and aesthetic differences.

If this is your first time starting a garden, I invite you to start your garden, step by step, as I do. I am an experienced gardener and I am an pretty good physical shape. So, I expect it will take me about 8-10 hours to plan, prepare, and create a 150 square feet of bed space, plus prepare my pathways.  However I won’t do this all at once, but in phases so that it doesn’t take up too much time all at once.

For new gardeners, it may take you a bit more time to make your decisions and do the physical work of making a garden. But even so, I think you’ll be surprised how much you can get done in a short time, if you do it using simple steps.

Here’s what I’ll be covering in the next few blogs.

  1. Garden Site Selection
  2. Planning Your Garden Layout
  3. Laying out the Garden
  4. Building the Beds
  5. Planning Your Plantings
  6. Simple Cold Frames for Seed Starting
  7. First Round Planting

As we move forward, I recommend that you read one post and then take the recommended action before going on to the next post.

As I mentioned earlier in the series, many people do a lot of intellectual learning but then fail to do the legwork to connect their mind and body in the process. By treating the action items from the posts like “homework” and doing that before you come back to “class” to read the next post,  you will bridge the gap between knowing and doing.

Homework Assignment No. 1

For your first garden preparation homework assignment do these three things.

1. Gather Inspiration

Take a little time to reflect on this idea of “potager”. Gather inspiration from established vegetable gardens either from images and descriptions online or in your area.

Notice the design details that appeal to you, bed shapes, materials used in construction, path spacing, and other features that make you want to spend time in those other people’s gardens.  Make notes in your observation journal and cross check the resources in your area to see if there are things that might help you achieve a similar feel or result.

2. Identify Vegetables For Your Climate

Also, find out what vegetables grow well near you. Your local agricultural extension office can help, universities with agricultural departments, or vegetable gardening writers that garden near to where you live are all good resources.

3. Find Your First and Last Frost Dates

Finally, find out your first and last frost dates. You can plant somethings before and after these dates. Your primary food production though, will fall between those two dates.

See you in the next “class” when we choose our garden location!

 

 

Less Trash + More Bokashi = Garden Love

I hate to take out the trash. It actually makes me sad when I see all the stuff I send (or used to send) to the landfill. That’s because I know the place I send my trash is in the middle of a rural, residential zone.

Property is cheaper over there. I suspect that’s because most people don’t want to live near a landfill. So, there tends to be a lot of young families just starting out and retired folks on fixed incomes in that area. Sending my garbage off  to their neighborhood just feels inconsiderate.

Luckily, homesteading is a way of life that can lead to zero waste in the long-term.

Making compost is one of the easiest and most beneficial ways to immediately reduce your landfill load. Starting a vermicompost bin and using that to grow a compost-driven  garden, is something you can do in just a few simple steps.

Unfortunately, people who are new to composting are often told to only compost certain things. In particular, they are warned to keep dairy, fish, meats, oils, fats, and prepared or processed foods out of their compost bucket.

Doing this cuts down on potential problems like bad smells or houseflies invading your compost bucket. However, it also severely limits the amount of compost you can make. Plus, you still end up sending a lot of unnecessary waste into other people’s backyards.

Overcoming the Limited Approach to Composting

Quite frankly, you don’t have to limit what you compost – indoors or out – as long as you use compost methods designed to deal with potentially stinkier and more pathogenic compost materials.

We’ll get into outdoor methods of composting everything in future posts. Today though, I want to tell you about a simple tool called “bokashi”. This process allows you to prepare all your food waste so that you can safely compost it using your indoor vermicompost bin.

Benefits of Bokashi

The word bokashi is Japanese for “fermented organic matter”. This fermentation process minimizes harmful bacteria in higher risk foods like meat and dairy. It also fast tracks the growth of beneficial bacteria to expedite composting later.

It can even improve the rate at which your worms generate compost because it makes your raw compost materials even healthier for them to eat. Like humans who enjoy lacto-fermented sauerkraut, worms who eat bokashi materials may be better able to digest those fermented foods. They also ingest beneficial bacteria which may improve their health and productivity.

Bokashi is done “anaerobically” which means without air. So, it limits the potential for bad smells in the early processing. Also, flies, gnats, and such can’t survive airtight containers. So, even if they get in, they don’t get out!

How to Make Bokashi at Home

Bokashi is very simple process. Well…it is once you establish a simple system for doing it. Here are the basics.

1. Fill Your Bokashi Bucket with Layers

Bokashi involves putting a few inches of compost materials (e.g. kitchen scraps and leftovers) in a container, covering them with a light dusting of inoculated bokashi bran or splash of bokashi liquid.

Then you add a few more inches of compost material with another sprinkle or splash of bokashi inoculant. You repeat this layering processing until you have filled your container.

2. Compress Your Materials and Limit Air Flow

Because this process is anaerobic, you also need to compress your scraps to push out the air between your layers.  I use the bottom of a mason jar as a tamper to squish everything down.

You keep your container tightly closed between each application of compost materials. Then, once your container is full, you close it up tight for 2-3 weeks to keep all air out while the fermentation happens.

Side Note: Incidentally, this process is very similar to making fermented foods like sauerkraut. Instead of compressing compost materials and sprinkling with bokashi bran, you compress shredded veggies or herbs and sprinkle with salt.
I’ll get into more details on fermenting foods later. But, as I explained at the start of this series, homesteading is all about simple skills. Once you know the basics, you’ll start to discover lots of different applications around the homestead!

3. Strain Out Fermentation Liquid Often

Bokashi works best when moisture levels are about 60%. Most of the food scraps we collect have more than 60% moisture. So, there is one more trick to bokashi.

You have to remove the excess moisture during the fermentation process, without letting in air. To do that, you need the right kind of container.

That container is usually called a bokashi bucket. When you buy the pre-made versions, they are about 5 gallons in size with an airtight lid.

The bokashi buckets usually have a spigot at the bottom that allows you to drain the moisture without opening the lid. Better versions also have a strainer over the spigot opening inside the bucket to keep it from clogging up.

I’ll include buying options at the bottom of this post if you are interested.  But you can also make your own bokashi buckets at home for much less than you can buy them.

DIY Bokashi Bucket Systems

Here are some simple container ideas to help you get started making bokashi for very little investment.

– Bucket with a Drain or Spigot

Bokashi Drain

If you have a hole saw or a spade drill bit kit, you can make a hole in the base of your bucket and insert a 3/4″ PVC bulkhead or a  1″ to 3/4″ PVC male adapter as a drain. Then, you’ll also need a threaded PVC end cap to close the drain.

Note: If you use the adapter not the bulkhead, you’ll also need to use silicone caulk to hold the adapter in place and prevent leakage. 

This concept costs about $6 in parts at the hardware store. It takes about 5 minutes of work to make. You’ll also need to buy or free source a bucket with a tight-fitting lid.

You could also use a spigot as a drain. They cost more like $10 for a good one that won’t clog. But they make draining your bokashi liquid easy too.

– The 3-Bucket Systems

If you don’t have a a hole saw or spade drill kit, you can also just drill a few drainage holes in the bottom of a bucket just like you did for the vermicompost bin. Then you can set the bucket with the holes inside another bucket (with no holes) to catch the liquid that drains out.

When using this method, it’s nice to have two buckets for catching the liquid. That way to remove the liquid, you just lift the inner bucket from the outer bucket. Then you immediately put the inner bucket into the second outer bucket.

After that, you can then use the bucket that has the bokashi liquid to make fertilizer (see “Using Bokashi Liquid” below for details).

For this three bucket system to work, the inner bucket must have a very tight fitting lid to create the airless conditions for making bokashi. Also, the other two buckets (that catch the liquid) must fit snugly around your inner bucket. Similar to the lid, the snug fit between the buckets helps maintain an airless environment for bokashi.

Warning: If you don’t have a second outer bucket (e.g. you use 2 not 3 buckets), then you have to put the inner bucket on something else when you empty the catch bucket. Otherwise, your bokashi bucket drips out all over the place until you put the catch bucket back.

Multiple Bokashi Bins

Similar to vermicomposting, you really need at least two bokashi bins for this to be an effective tool on the homestead.  That way while one bin is fermenting, you can be filling up the other.

Using the 3 bucket system, you’ll always need to keep one bucket under your bokashi bin to catch the liquid. However you really only need one extra catch bucket for transfers.  So, if you wanted 3 bokashi bins, you’d need 6 dedicated buckets (3 inner, 3 outer) and 1 extra catch bucket for transferring. In that case, you’d have a 7 bucket system.

Side Note: As you can probably tell by now, buckets are a pretty incredible tool on the homestead.  so free source and stash them whenever you get the chance.

Where to Keep Your Bokashi Bins

Bokashi bins, like your vermicompost bins, should be kept at temperatures suitable for  human comfort, out of direct sunlight, and in a place that is convenient for you to access regularly.

Also, when using a bucket with a drain, you’ll want to elevate it (e.g. sit it in a phone book or stack of old magazines) so you can get a cup under your drain to catch your liquid.

Finished Bokashi

Most bokashi instructions say it takes 2 weeks to ferment your scraps. I am not so great about cutting my scraps up into tiny pieces. Sometimes I put large bones, like poultry drumsticks and pork ribs, into my bokashi bucket. So, I usually just let the bokashi bucket sit for 3 weeks to make sure things are good and fermented.

When you open the bucket, if it is finished, it should have a slight vinegary, almost sweet smell. It may also smell a bit musty and sour. However, it shouldn’t smell like rancid, rotted meat. If it does, add a lot more bokashi inoculant and close that sucker up for another 3 weeks!

Using Your Bokashi Liquid

The bokashi liquid that comes out during fermentation can be diluted at a rate of 100 parts water to 1 part bokashi juice. Then you can apply it to house plants, non-edible flowers, your lawn, or mature perennial plants as a short-term fertilizer.

If you use the 3 bucket method, then just add the water to your bucket and use a jar or cup to dip out what you need for plants. I usually go for about a cup of diluted liquid per square foot of soil around the roots.

Avoid using this liquid directly in the vegetable garden as it may still contain some food-borne pathogens.

Vermicomposting Bokashi Solids

Once your bokashi is fermented, then you can add those solids from your bokashi bucket to your vermicompost bins and let your worms convert it to compost for you.

Feed your bokashi-ed goodies to your worms just like you do your un-fermented composting materials. Add a few inches to your vermicompost bin to start. When your worms eat most of that, replenish it with more bokashi solids.

Make sure you never overload your worm bin or you can suffocate your worms by creating an airless environment like your bokashi bucket!

Bokashi Inoculant

Now, that you have the basics down, we must talk about the all-important bokashi inoculant.  This stuff is basically like adding yeast to bread dough or wine must, except instead of yeast, it adds the bacteria that ferment organic matter in airless conditions.

Just to get started, I recommend you buy your dry bokashi bran ready-made. This will give you a chance to see how the inoculant is supposed to work. However, this stuff is pretty expensive to buy.

So, just a little further down the homesteading road, you’ll want to make your own bokashi starter. (I’ll cover that in a later post, too.) By then, you’ll have made a few batches of bokashi using the commercial bran. You’ll know what the process is supposed to look like. And that will make it easy for you to confirm that your homemade bokashi is working equally well.

In the meantime though, you don’t have to bokashi everything. You can continue to put your “limited list” compost materials into your worm bins fresh. Then you can use your bokashi bran just for your meat, dairy, fats, prepared, and cooked foods.  That way you won’t burn through your bran in a week.

Bokashi Pointers

Different bokashi inoculants have different application rates. So, I can’t tell you exactly how much to apply.  You’ll need to read the instructions on your bokashi inoculant for exact measurements.

Personally, though, when I buy bokashi inoculant, I prefer to use dry bran. It’s easier to store and holds up longer on my shelf.

– Compost Base

I start my bokashi by putting some finished compost in the bottom of my bokashi bucket (about an inch). This helps keep my drain from clogging and acts as a kind of biofilter for the liquid that comes out at the start of the fermentation cycle. (It tends to be stinkier than the stuff that comes out later.)

-Extra Bran for Bigger Bits and Bones

I sprinkle on about a tablespoon of dry bokashi bran over the compost. Then, I add 2-3 inches of food scraps. I add another tablespoon or so of bokashi bran, and repeat. If I am adding primarily meat or lots of bones, I add 2 tablespoons of bran instead of just 1.

Also if I am putting in large chunks of stuff, I also up my bran input. It takes longer for the bacteria to work their way through bigger bits.  So I figure by adding more of them, many bacterial buddies will make lighter work.

– Bone Meal Beginnings

Because I do put bones, large and small,  in my bokashi, later after my worms have composted my bokashi solids, I pick those bones out of the worm castings. The worms eat up all the meat residue and leave me with just bones. Then, I air dry those bones and save them to use for bone meal fertilizer (more on that in later posts).

– Lacking in Liquid

Also, since I don’t bokashi all of my kitchen scraps, sometimes I even have to add some water to my bokashi to get to the 60% moisture level that is necessary for the bacteria to be active.  If you aren’t getting any liquid run-off from your bokashi bucket, open it up and make sure your bokashi solids feel squishy but not oozy.

Bokashi is Love

We all learn to sort our recyclables, to flush the toilet, to put the seat up or down, to wrap up stinky stuff or take it direct to the outside trash bins, and so on. We take out the trash, haul it to the curb, etc.  These are all habits that we have normalized in our society to keep things nice.

Bokashi and vermicomposting are no different. You are simply sorting a different way.  Then instead of taking out the trash and sending it to someone else’s backyard, you are turning it into compost for your own.

Bokashi to me is an act of love. It’s love for my community because I am not sending my stinky mess away for someone else to live next door to. It’s love for my soil because the ultimate end product — more compost — will increase fertility for growing plants. It’s love for myself and my family because that compost ultimately grows things that nourish us and our planet.

Don’t let anyone tell you this is too hard, or too much work, or any other iteration of poo-pooing your efforts to do the right thing. This is easy, basic stuff that you can do with the same amount of effort as sending your garbage off for someone else to deal with. Yet, it is profoundly better for you, your family, our society, and our planet.

Also if you have cats or dogs, bokashi can make their poop useful for non-edible plants too. I’ll cover that in more detail in future posts. But, wouldn’t you love to not have to use toxic kitty litter? Or put your pup’s poop to good use making your homestead beautiful?

Buying Options

Just in case you need to buy some things to get your bokashi started,  if you click the images below to buy, I’ll get a small percentage of your purchase price at no extra charge to you.

This is how I support this website. However, I totally understand if you prefer to make your own or find different suppliers.

Here is an easy to use dry bokashi bran. It costs $13 for 2.2 pounds. You can also buy larger batches if you want to have a supply for a while.

If you prefer a pre-made bokashi bucket, instead of making your own, you can get one that includes 2.2 pounds of dry bokashi bran for about $47 (first image).  You can get also fancier version that includes a counter top compost bucket and cup for the liquid for $55 (second image).

 

Also note, your purchases will likely come in packaging. Save your cardboard for the garden or your worm bins as extra browns. Hang on to your plastic bags for use later to make a plastic quilt to use in the garden.

Also, if they happen to send you those puffy air pillows or Styrofoam, those are great insulation around plant containers. More on these ideas in later posts too!

Simple Vermicomposting

All organic gardens start with compost. That’s why, in our last post, we started saving materials to make compost in a 5 gallon bucket. In this post, we’ll take a few more simple steps in the compost-making process.

There are many different ways of making compost ranging from easy to elaborate. I am going to explain a few simple options in this series. But, regardless of which methods you ultimately end up using, I recommend that all new gardeners start by making vermicompost!

Vermicomposting makes great humus which is magical stuff that helps everything in your garden grow better. Plus it also makes “plant perfect” fertilizer that you can start using almost immediately.

What is Vermicompost?

worm-castings.png

Vermicompost is made primarily by red wriggler worms. Red wrigglers are very small worms that can eat half their body weight, each day, of all those fresh materials you’ve been saving in your 5 gallon bucket.

In reality, you’ll get a lot of ebb and flow in compost production depending on what you’ve got in your bucket. Still, with very minimal work, you can accumulate quite a bit of the highest quality, least work compost possible using these amazing worms.

Also, if you plan to keep other livestock later, your ability to take care of these worms is both good practice and an excellent test of your readiness for more complex life forms (e.g. chickens).

How Do You Care For Worms?

To take care of your worms, you’ll need to provide them proper shelter and bedding, nutritious food and sufficient water, occasionally clean their living area, and make adjustments in their care as required for their continued good health. (Incidentally, that’s also what you need to do for all other livestock.)

– Shelter and Bedding

For your first round of worms, their shelter will be a plastic container.  Their bedding will be compost or top soil.

– Food and Water

Their food will be the materials you have been saving in your 5-gallon bucket, plus some loose brown matter that I’ll tell you about in a minute. Generally the food materials from your bucket will have sufficient water to hydrate your worms. Although, you may occasionally need to moisten your feed materials if they start to dry out.

Like us, worms don’t want to open the metaphorical fridge and find that the only thing to eat is ketchup. So, make sure to feed them before they run out of food. That way they can pick and choose what to eat and don’t end up living on nothing but onions and coffee grounds for a month.

Similar to making compost, some people say you shouldn’t give worms certain things. Well, smells and insects can be a problem in indoor worm bins.  So I recommend you do one of two things.

  1. Use the “limited list” compost approach to collecting in your bucket.  This excludes things like meat, dairy, and cooked foods.
  2. If you prefer to compost everything indoors, then you’ll need to ferment your compost materials before you feed them to your worms.  This is done by a very simple process called bokashi. (I will tell you more about that in our next post).

People also say you should chop things up small — not give whole egg shells or wash them first, avoid citrus, limit onions — etc. etc. etc. Personally, I ignore all those special rules. Whatever the worms don’t eat, goes into the garden with the worm castings. There, other life forms end up eating them eventually.

– Cleaning

As far as cleaning goes, I recommend that you make at least two worm bins. When one bucket fills up you can scrape the majority of the worms from the top of your full bucket and transfer them to a new bucket.  Then all you need to do is spread the compost from your first bucket on your garden.  Once your second bucket is full, repeat the same process.

You will also need to empty the liquid, called leachate,  that drains from your worm bin into your second container, regularly. Dilute this liquid to a ratio of 10 parts water to 1 part leachate. Use it to water the roots of your more mature plants. (Don’t use this on seedlings, sometimes it can be too strong.)

– Care

Worm care is very simple. Still, I can’t tell you how many people have managed to kill their worms. One lady left them shut up in her greenhouse on a hot day.  A man put them in his garage which was well below freezing, so his worms froze to death. Most people just fail to feed them and those poor, trapped worms die of starvation.

Worms like the same basic climate conditions as we do for best performance. Well, except that they live in a plastic box – which amplifies conditions like sunlight, heat, and cold. Basically, though, if you keep them at the house temperatures you feel comfortable in, out of direct sunlight, and away from vents that will cause them to become too dry, they’ll be happy.

Feed them before they get hungry. Transfer them to a new bin before they run out of space. And remember to treat them like they are living beings, doing amazing work for you, then you’ll do just fine!

Now, that you are primed on the basic needs of worms, here’s what you need to do to start using them at home.

1. Prepare Your Browns

You’ve already started gathering your worm food in your 5 gallon buckets. But now, it’s time to start saving up some separate “browns” to go help create a hospitable environment for worms. Used computer paper, newspaper, junk mail with the plastic windows torn out, paper towels, cardboard, paper egg cartons, tissues boxes, toilet paper rolls, etc. are all good options. Crushed, but not composted, fall leaves are also a good option when the season is right.

Shred your paper items if you can. But if you don’t have access to a shredder, you can also do this manually. If you watch any TV or movies, tearing large paper-based materials into small pieces by hand while you watch is relaxing and redeeming. (Personally, I don’t feel guilty about my TV time if I am also doing some homesteading “work” while I watch).

2. Make Your Worm Bin

Extra large cat litter boxes or 5 gallon sized food grade buckets make great worm bins. Ideally you’ll want two containers of the same size that you can nest together.

If you don’t have any containers from your own purchases, ask friends and family to collect these for you. Or check with your favorite restaurants to see if they can save you their large food grade buckets.

– Make Drainage Holes For The Worm Compost Leachate

Drill a few holes in the bottom of one container for drainage. Put some weight on the bucket using your foot to keep it steady. Then hold the drill with two hands to drill the holes.  (Keep your foot away from the drill, though for safety).

Drill a Few Holes

Note: Those cat litter pails have ridged bottoms. Make sure you drill the part that is flush with the bottom — not the inverted ridges — because liquid needs to flow to the low point in the container. This is where your worm compost tea will drain out thanks to gravity.

Look! This is so easy, you can even get your cat involved!

– Make a Vent for Fresh Air

If your container has a lid, you can use a sharp utility knife to make an air vent.  Cut out a small section. Cover it with a few coffee filters, folded to size, and held in place with duct tape. Paper towels also work if you are not a coffee drinker.

Note: Some people worry that the worms might eat through the coffee filters. I have never had it happen. I suspect that’s because there are better food options in the body of the bucket. But, if you are worried about this, you can use a piece of metal screen like you use for your screen door or over windows to keep flies out instead.

– No Lid? No Problem

If you only managed to scavenge containers but no lids, then just cover the whole top with a towel and secure it with a rope or bungee cord. You will be getting in and out of this bucket from time to time. So make sure you secure your towel using something you can untie easily.

No lid no problem

Again, if you are concerned about worms escaping by eating the towel, then use some screen cut to size instead of a towel.

– Add Your Compost Leachate Catcher

Nest your bucket with holes inside your other container that doesn’t have holes.

Nested Worm Bin

With the cat litter boxes, you can even lean the drilled side forward a bit to help the liquid drain faster.  This doesn’t work with round buckets, but it will still drain fine (just a bit more slowly).

3. Prepare Worm Habitat

Fill the Bin

There are all sorts of formulas out there for what to put in your worm bins. Personally,  after years of raising worms in bins, in beds, and direct in the garden, I have decided that nature knows best.

I add 3 inches of top soil or finished compost to the bottom of my worm bin since this is what the worms live in when they free range. This also helps maintain the moisture in the bin in while acting as a bio-filter for the liquid that drains out the bottom.

Moisten your compost or soil so that it is like a full — but not soppy — sponge.

Side Note For Garden Preparation

You are going to need to get some already-made compost for your garden very soon. So, go ahead and start buying a couple of bags a week in preparation for starting your beds. If you grab a few bags each time you do your normal shopping, it’s not such a hit to your budget or so much heavy lifting for your back! Then you can use some of this in your worm bin too.

You’ll need about 3 cubic feet of well-aged compost for every 10 square feet of garden space you’ve earned based on your estimated compost making ability.  Normally bagged compost is about 1 cubic foot per bag. Double check the label to be sure, though. (Organic compost can sometimes be in smaller bags to make the price seem more similar to the non-organic variety).

4. Move Your Worms into their New Home

You can buy worms online from specialized suppliers. They sell them by the pound or piece count.  A pound of worms is about 1000 worms, and that’s about what you need to get started. Some suppliers only ship in good weather for worm safety. Others charge a lot for shipping because they use foam coolers and insulation to ship year round.

You can often get a batch of worms from other gardeners (if you ask nicely and maybe barter a bit). Bait and tackle shops often carry red wrigglers for fishermen to use as well.

If you have seen red wrigglers in your soil, then you can also just put a couple inches of your compost materials on your soil and wait until the worms crawl up to eat it.  Then you can pick out worms and put them in your bin.  You’ll need to repeat this a few times to get a sufficient population for your bin. But, it saves you up to $40 on the price of worms.

Once you have your worms, spread them out on top of the compost in your new worm bin.  Introduce yourself.  Let them know you’ll be taking care of them. And wish them well in their new home!

5. Feed Your Livestock

Now, add about 3 inches of loose compost materials from your 5 gallon bucket to this new worm bin to get them started. Do not pack this in. You don’t want those worms to suffocate or get crushed!

Cover the fresh materials with about 2 inches of the loose brown matter from step 1 above. The brown stuff will cut down on smells and irritating gnat flies.

If you haven’t collected enough browns yet, then you can also sprinkle just enough of your bagged compost to cover the fresh materials.

6. Get to Know Your Worms

Red Wrigglers

Like any new livestock, you’ll want to spend a lot of time with your worms at first to get to know as much as you can about them. Move aside your browns every day or two and see how much your worms have eaten. Check to see if your materials are still moist. Pay attention to how much black, gummy goodness (a.k.a. worm poop) your power eaters have made.

Each time you visit your worms, add in more fresh food and browns, as needed, to replace what’s missing. Also, give your worms a banana peel now and then. That’s their favorite food!

Actually it’s the potassium in the peels that they are attracted. Potassium can be hard to come by in other forms of organic matter. When you add a banana peel or two to each batch of vermicompost, you also increase the potassium content that will be in the vermicompost and leachate that you feed to your plants.

Conclusion

When you have accomplished the above, you can add “vermicompost manager” to your homesteading resume. You have not only started to make your own compost for the garden. but you have also added your first kind of  livestock to your homestead line-up!

These simple steps, have led to huge progress. This one skill can feed your garden and your family for years to come. And, if you take great care of your worms, they will live long and propagate so you never have to buy them again.

Continue your simple homesteading journey with Less Trash + More Bokashi = Garden Love.

Garden Dreams and Compost Calculations

Are you dreaming of a big, beautiful garden full of lush, tasty vegetables and fruits? Can you image the smell of a ripe tomato or of the earth as you carefully loosen pounds of perfect potatoes from your rich, loamy soil? Do your future beans, corn, and sunflowers climb 12 feet in the air and tower over you like benevolent garden giants?

Is your imagined garden abuzz with all the pollinating insects and beneficial pest eaters? Do borage, nasturtium, calendula, marigolds, and other companion flowers line your paths and intermix with your vegetables? Do you picture yourself cutting fresh herbs from a stunning array of ever-giving plants?

Oh, I love that dream! There is nothing so soul-moving and life-altering as a growing (or even imagining growing) a vibrant garden. And you can absolutely make that dream a reality using simple steps if you know how to grow a garden.

How Does Your Garden Grow?

Besides the basics, like seeds, plus sufficient water, light, and air (to be covered in detail later), there are just two more things you need to grow your very own garden of Eden.

  1. You need soil that is about 2 feet deep, loose in texture, and high in humus content.
  2. Then, you need a way to return nutrients to your soil every time you harvest.

Now, don’t panic! Remember in the pep-talk post, when I said that as long as you do it slowly, methodically, and with careful intention, then homesteading is easy?

Well, I need you to keep that in mind as you start planning your garden. This is important because the garden is where most new homesteaders start to go really wrong.

Here’s why.

You’ve got big dreams, but little skills. And the garden is an excellent teacher. If you start too big, your garden will quickly teach you the limit of your skills. That can be very disheartening to new gardeners. Luckily, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Grow According to Your Skill Level

Starting simple, by right-sizing your garden to your skills, will get you much better and quicker results than overreach. With that said, how big should you make your garden?

Well, here’s a good rule of thumb.

Match your garden size to your finished compost production.

If you are just getting started, you won’t even have finished compost for at least a year from when you start collecting materials. So, you’ll likely be buying compost for your first year of gardening.

In fact, you’ll probably be buying some things for the garden for at least the first 5 years until you get your soil in shape to qualify for point number 1 above. But, if you don’t want to be spending a fortune on your garden for the rest of your homesteading life, then using your ability to produce compost as your garden-size guide is the way to grow.

Why?

Because, if you don’t add enough fresh compost annually to your garden, it will produce less and less each year. Plus your pest, pathogen, and crop failure problems will increase in direct relation to your lack of compost.

Homestead gardens do not grow on dreams alone. The dream is just the seed that gets you started. After that, you must feed the garden dream. For that, you need compost!

How to Start Growing a Compost Driven Garden

Even if you have never composted before in your life and barely know what it is, I will tell you an easy way to estimate your compost capacity.  Then I’ll give you a simple way to get started making compost right away.

Estimate Your Compost Capacity

A 5-gallon bucket works great for estimating your compost capacity. The number of times you can fill that bucket in a year equals the number of square feet you can grow in your garden using your own compost.

Think of it like this. Each time you fill that bucket, you’ve earned a square foot of garden space for one year. So, if you fill that bucket once a month, then in a year, you’ll have enough compost for a 12 foot long by 1 foot wide garden.  If you fill it twice a month, your compost capacity can support twice that amount so you get 2 rows that are 12 feet long.

You can also rearrange those square feet of space anyway you like.  For example, you could have a 6 foot row that is 2 feet wide. Or you could have three square beds that are 4 square feet each.  Maybe you prefer a keyhole bed?  That part is up to you.

Garden Bed Possibilities

If you’ll be container gardening, the bucket calculation still works. You may just need to do a little math to translate the shapes of your containers into square feet.

It’s easier with square and rectangular containers. For round containers, though, you can go back to your high school algebra or just use an online calculator to convert the diameter of your pots to square feet.

Compost Approaches

There are two theories on compost. The first is the theory that you can only compost uncooked vegetable and plant matter. The second theory is that you can compost almost everything that was once living or that came out of something once living.

– The Limited List Compost Approach

Nature composts everything. It just breaks some things down at a slower rate. It also breaks some things down using methods we humans can be a bit squeamish about. For example, cooked meat is often composted by stinky bacteria and maggots.

As such, the primary reasons to limit what you put in your compost piles are to reduce potential unsavory smells and get ready-compost faster.  Many people prefer to use the limited list approach to composing so they don’t offend their neighbors or have to protect their compost piles from pesky pests (or pets).

The list below is taken straight from the EPA page on composting.  (Under the don’t compost side, you’ll see the reason why you might not want to compost this stuff.)

Compost

Don’t Compost

Fruits and vegetables Black walnut tree leaves or twigs
Eggshells – Releases substances that might be harmful to plants
Coffee grounds and filters Coal or charcoal ash
Tea bags – Might contain substances harmful to plants
Nut shells Dairy products (e.g., butter, milk, sour cream, yogurt) and eggs*
Shredded newspaper – Create odor problems and attract pests
Cardboard Diseased or insect-ridden plants
Paper – Diseases or insects might survive and be transferred to new plants
Yard trimmings Fats, grease, lard, or oils
Grass clippings – Create odor problems and attract pests
Houseplants Meat or fish bones and scraps
Hay and straw – Create odor problems and attract pests
Leaves Pet wastes (e.g., dog or cat feces, soiled cat litter)
Sawdust – Might contain parasites, bacteria, germs, pathogens, and viruses
Wood chips Yard trimmings treated with chemical pesticides
Cotton and Wool Rags – Might kill beneficial composting organisms
Dryer and vacuum cleaner lint
Hair and fur
Fireplace ashes

Note: Limited list composters may also compost some animal manure. But they often compost manures using different methods than for pure plant matter.

– The Compost Everything Approach

The compost everything approach requires that you have a composting system you can protect from rodents and bigger critters or pets. It also requires that you wait 1 year from the time your pile is 4 x 4 feet tall and wide (large enough to generate heat) to apply the compost to your garden.

The pile size requirement and the waiting period are both necessary to give slower composting materials time to break down and to minimize risk of pathogen reinfection.

What Not To Compost EVER!

Warning! For both composting approaches, there are 3 things to keep out of your pile.

  • Plant matter from walnut trees because these may contain juglone – a naturally occurring plant growth inhibitor.
  • Diseased plant matter because many fungal pathogens can survive composting and persist in the soil for up to 10 years.
  • Chemical-laced organic matter because some herbicides (and other chemicals) can take 2 years or more to decompose in compost. If you want to learn more about this, check out this fact sheet on Understanding Persistent Herbicides from the US Council on Composting.

Which Kind of Composter Are You?

The limited list compost camp is easiest for beginners. It has few risks and doesn’t require any special equipment. You can even just build your pile on some twigs on the ground without using a bin.

The downside of being a limited list composter is that you’ll have a lot less material to compost. Either that or you’ll have to do a lot more work to gather materials to increase your compost capacity.

When you take the compost everything approach, though, it’s hard to switch back to the limited list approach after you start. You’ll already have stuff in your pile that needs time to decompose. So, you’ll need to keep your compost pile protected until it decomposes. Or you’ll need to bag that stuff up and deliver it to the landfill. So, consider this option carefully.

In rural areas, composting everything may make a whole lot of sense. But in a small apartment, when you only plan to grow a few containers, then limited list composting might be the perfect solution.

There is no right or wrong answer here, just the one that makes the most sense for you.

Start Composting Now

I’ve given you a lot to think about. If it doesn’t all make perfect sense now, don’t worry.  it will come.

For now, just start to move in the right direction.  For your next steps do the following.

  1. Get yourself a 5 gallon bucket with a tight fitting lid.
  2. Take a little time to decide what kind of composter you think you want to be. If you are undecided, then start with the limited list approach. You can always start composting more things later when you have more experience.
  3. Start collecting your composting materials in your bucket. Put the bucket under your kitchen sink or next to your trash can. Or, put the bucket elsewhere (e.g. in the garage, in a shed etc.) and then keep a small container on your counter to fill and empty into your bucket.
  4. Be mindful about your new composting habit. Remind yourself to sort your  compostables into your bucket every time you throw something away until this becomes a habit.
  5. Make note of the date you start collecting and the date you fill the bucket. Keep track of this information for several months to get a reliable estimate.

Upcoming Posts

There’s a bit more to learn about composting and gardening before you are ready to plant your first seeds. We’ll be getting deeper into those topics in future posts.

In particular, we’ll look at a few easy methods for turning those 5 gallon buckets of collected material into actual compost. We’ll also look at ways you can increase your compost production by sourcing materials for the purpose of composting.

We’re also going to start preparing a garden together. Yep, I am going to start one from scratch so I can show you how to begin and what to do each step of the way.

Remember,  simple steps are all it takes. Don’t worry about all that other stuff yet. Just start filling your bucket. That is all you need to do to start composting.

Also, take pleasure in knowing that each bucket you fill brings you that much closer to the garden of your dreams!

Tomorrow, continue your simple homesteading journey with Simple Vermicomposting.

Recognizing Resources

The world is a mess. The climate is beyond repair and all we can do now is wait for disaster after disaster to destroy us. All of our institutions are so completely fragile that the next big event might mean the end of our entire way of life.

If you really believed that, would you be spending your time reading this website on how to homestead?

The Practical Optimist

OK, you might be worried. And yes, there are things to worry about. But if you are interested in becoming a homesteader, then you must be an inherently optimistic person.

You are probably also a practical person. You know that big changes are coming in your lifetime. And you’d rather have a bit of control over the outcome.

Being willing to believe that potentially difficult changes are coming and taking practical steps to improve your chances by homesteading are completely compatible beliefs. However, thinking the world is ending and nothing can be done about it, then trying to homestead anyways is pretty much the definition of crazy.

This point is important because I don’t want you to waste your time on something you don’t believe in. If you really believe the worst, if that intro paragraph rings absolutely true, then please stockpile, focus on your survival skills, and get your shelter in order.

But if you really are a homesteader at heart, own the fact that you are also an optimist. It will make this process a whole lot easier because optimism is actually a necessary skill in homesteading.

Think about it.

Early homesteaders literally set out to live in places that were absolutely inhospitable to human life. They were starting new lives on tracts of land that were wild, desolate, isolated, unpredictable, and unquestionably dangerous. Many homesteaders had few skills to speak of and even fewer possessions.

The Glass Is More Than Half Full

It is really important to get your head around this idea of optimism being necessary because successful homesteading requires that you see possibilities other people don’t see.

As the old saying goes, the pessimist sees the glass as half-empty, the optimist as half-full, and the realist sees half a glass of water. Personally, as an optimist, I see a whole lot more than a half-full glass of water.

I see a glass that can be used to sprout seeds on my counter, water plants, cover outdoor seedlings like a cloche in bad weather, a storage vessel, a rain collection device, a measuring cup, and so much more.

Homesteading requires you to see an abundance of resources where other people see problems or perfunctory things.

Practice Optimism

Even though I know, with certainty, that any true homesteader is an optimistic person by nature, not all of us have been practicing this skill regularly. In fact, we might be a bit wishy-washy on the optimism front.

We might have gotten into the habit of letting other people diminish our creativity or convince us to be conventional. We may have just gotten lazy and started seeing resources as only having narrow utility.

Optimism is still in you. It’s still a fundamental part of the person you are. It’s just a bit rusty.  So, before you start making plans about all the stuff you want or need, do me this favor.

Take some time to practice homesteading optimism.

Look around at the things you already own or have free access to. Then, start to see the myriad of ways you can use those resources to advance your homesteading dreams.

Don’t look online to try to find all the ways other people have used a mason jar for example. It’s important that you come up with your own ideas so you can awaken this sleeping skill.

Instead, hold that glass of possibility in your hand and try to imagine all the ways you might use it on your homestead. Then write all those ideas down.

Resource Abundance

There is another side to this idea of homesteading optimism. As I said before, there are real reasons to worry about the future. Particularly on the resource front. This is a finite planet and it is in peril in some ways.

Making ecologically sound choices in our homesteading practices is one way we can avoid being contributors to our global problems. So many of the skills we modern homesteaders aspire to evolved out of the necessities of the times they lived in.

Basket weaving began because containers were needed and pliable young willow swatches were abundant. Earthen shelters were built in the desert because wood was scarce and dry earth was abundant. Log cabins were standard in forested areas because wood was plentiful.

Rather than starting with a long list of specific wants for your homestead, how about starting with recognition of the resources that are abundant in your area and on your property.

Sometimes the things that are “abundant” seem repugnant at first blush. For example, to the grass grower, fields of dandelions and clover are like a curse on the land. To an optimistic homesteader looking at the available resources and making a plan for how to use them – those lawn weeds become wine, tea, coffee substitute, salads, and honey bee food.

A neglected cow pasture reclaimed by brush and kudzu might look like a mess to a cattle farming. To a homesteader though, that is a perfect place to put some goats out to pasture.

Look around your area with a homesteader’s optimism. Note what’s abundant (and sometimes irritating) and imagine how that excess can be put to good use on your homestead.

Start to make lists of all the ready resources you already have. In fact, use your weather observation notebook for this too. Go front to back on weather notes and back to front on resource notes until you meet in the middle with a full-notebook.

You may have already figured this out, but resource recognition has a lot in common with natural observation. You are starting to look closely at things that have been ignored and overlooked to develop your homesteading skills.

Tomorrow, continue your simple homesteading journey with Garden Dreams and Compost Calculations.