If you are looking for inspiration to help you choose the right duck breeds for your homestead, take a look at my post on Morning Chores.
While you are there, take a few minutes to browse all the other informative homestead posts and inspiration on that amazing reference site. There are all sorts of livestock tips, plant growing guides, food preparation and preservation details, and more.
In particular, you may find these free calculator tools useful for garden and livestock care.
I absolutely love ducks, so it’s not a shocker that my first homestead project of the year was duck related. I re-purpuposed a small, semi-mobile chicken coop into a larger duck house. Essentially, I sat the coop on a 4 x 4 frame, over a couple layers of recycled cinder blocks and end caps.
Two Runner ducks, two Welsh Harlequins, two Rouens, a White Crested, and a Khaki Campbell are the new residents in my chicken coop turned duck house. The ducks don’t actually live in the coop. Instead, the ducks live beneath it in direct contact with soil in the earthen underparts inside the cinder blocks.
The coop itself is still intact. I can use the old ramp opening, my chickens used to use, to reach in and collect eggs. However, I usually let these ducks out at daybreak, before they would normally lay. So, I’ll also offer them private nest spaces outside the coop come spring.
I’ve done a lot of experimentation with duck housing and spacing. I’ve even let them pick their shelters. My small flocks opt for cozy, damp spaces without light when dark approaches. (By contrast, larger flocks prefer the pond as nighttime protection even over a large, ideal duck house.)
The challenge, though, is keeping a cozy duck house from becoming a stinkpot. To solve that issue, I situated their new home on a slight slope at the base of a larger hill. When it rains, a bit of extra water washes into their earthen residence and helps the manure percolate into the ground. Of course, during droughts, I’ll have to be the rain.
The soil around and under the house is fast-draining and teeming with soil life because I’ve been adding organic matter there for years. So far there is no smell, but we’ll see if that’s still true in August. I also put down a layer of hardware cloth to keep diggers from accessing my ducks in their night shelter. But I am not using bedding at all.
The run was inspired by the idea of chicken chunnels. It’s about a 45 feet long and nestled between my goat pasture and my primary vegetable garden. It spans 4 to 5 feet in width. I’ll be adding a bamboo top soon to give the ducks shade before the weather warms up.
The fencing on the right is home to a line of wild blackberries in the spring and summer. The ducks will keep those briers from crossing into the formal garden, while enjoying eating the berries and leaves they can reach. The yellow fence on the left will grow something viney, but I haven’t decided what yet. That soil will have too much nitrogen from the ducks to grow legumes. So, I am thinking maybe hops, nasturtium, or Maypop vines could be light weight alternatives.
The yellow fencing is made using old grape vine posts (compliments of our friends Ken and Kari at Round Peak vineyards). Then, I doubled up two lengths of frayed fire hazard electric poultry netting that is no longer useful with a charger, but is perfectly suitable to confine ducks. I used additional posts as weights at the bottom of the fence for stability and to keep ducks from, well, ducking under. (Sorry, had to!)
Gently down slope of the duck house is an edible landscape areas with fruits and berries. The idea is that the manure in the run soaks into the soil and is dispersed by microlife to the nearby plants. I have used this logic with ducks for several years and it works incredibly well.
The big question is… will this work with Mirabelle plums?
Against my better plant judgement, I am attempting to grow Mirabelle plums in North Carolina. I first encountered these amazing fruits in Northern parts of France like Normandy and Nancy. Though, they are more common in Lorraine.
Mirabelle are the sweetest, most fragrant, yet diminutive plums I have ever eaten. So, even though I might be crazy, I still had to try to grow them.
The climates where Mirabelles grow well have cool summers and moderate winters. Meanwhile, we have erratic winters and summers that start mild but end hot, humid and drought prone.
For the past two years, my Mirabelle trees have survived only by dropping their leaves in late July and putting them back on a few weeks later. This process of leaf drop is stressful on the young plants and puts them at risk for not storing enough nutrients to survive winter and bud in spring. Yet, it saves them from succumbing to death by overheating.
I am hoping that the cooling and nourishing effect of having a shaded duck run slightly uphill of the Mirabelles will drop the soil temperature a few degrees, and keep those plants well-hydrated during our hot summers. If that works, perhaps they can stay cool enough without leaf dropping.
It’s January and the Mirabelles are having their winter rest. The ducks are enjoying the henbit, deadnettle, annual grasses, and bitter cress that sprouted in our winter warm streak. So, it will be a while before I know if my two loves – ducks and Mirabelles – also love each other.
Still, seeing my beautiful ducks make themselves at home in their new run and yellow duck house gives me hope for a Mirabelle plum-filled future. And since my favorite spring and summer seating area is just 20 feet from the duck house, I’ll have the perfect front row seat to watch that relationship evolve.
If you are looking for a plant to make you happy mid-winter, let me tell you about these glorious golden globes pictured above. These luscious lovelies make the whole month of January feel like it’s lit with radiant summer sunshine. On cloudy days, or when I just need a winter pick me up, I head to he greenhouse to basque in their yellow luminescence.
In case you are wondering how I grow such gigantic lemons, then let me introduction you Meyer lemons. These are actually a cross between a lemon and an orange. They taste like super sweet lemons and grow as big as large oranges. So, while I am quite proud of my lemon size, I can’t take all the credit. This plant’s genetics play a big role.
How to Use
Meyer lemon rinds are perfect for candying, using to make homemade limoncello, and in just about any recipe that calls for lemon zest. (For limoncello, infuse vodka or white rum with the rinds of about 5-6 lemons for two weeks. Strain, then sweeten with sugar to your desired taste.)
The juice is perfect for lemonade. Squeeze and freeze it in ice cube trays. Then store the frozen cubes in baggies to use to make fresh lemonade whenever you need it.
These lemons are particularly wonderful to use for making homemade paneer cheese. Heat the cheese to nearly boiling, then squeeze in the lemon juice to trigger coagulation. After that, strain the curds through a flour sack towel and hang to dry for a few hours. It takes the juice of one lemon for every gallon of milk.
Tip: Throw in a few fenugreek seeds while heating your milk to make an extra aromatic paneer. The lemon and maple notes blend perfectly together.
My tree is planted in the ground near the center of my greenhouse. Soil pH in the root zone is about 6.0.
Temperatures stay above 35℉ at night in winter. During the day, winter temperatures in the greenhouse range between 50-80℉. In spring and summer the greenhouse is around 70 ℉ at night and 80-85℉ during day. The tree is protected from frost and there’s no wind.
It gets plenty of filtered sunshine. I add compost and mulch annually. I water deeply about once a month. I’m also growing several shallow rooted or potted shade plants over the lemon root zone. I water them more often, so some residual water filters down to keep the top few inches of soil moist.
I grow this more like a bush. I prune only for height and width. I also use coconut rope to wrap around the branches and tie them to each other. This creates a kind of self-supporting cage for the fruit heavy branches.
I’ve grown as many as 5-6 giant lemons on one branch. The lemons all grow large and don’t seem to mind not being thinned. The key is just to make sure the branches are supported so they don’t fold and crack.
As far as fertilizer goes, my tree gets compost tea when watered. It also gets fresh liquid gold applications at least weekly. (For those of you not familiar with the term liquid gold, that means we occasionally pee near the root zone. No sense in wasting nature’s perfect nitrogen source!)
Time to Harvest
I bought a 4 inch potted tree, in spring, three years go. The first year it produced 4 lemons, the second 8 lemons, this year we stopped counting at 60 lemons. The tree begins flowering in January while the lemons are nearly all ripe. It continues to flower until March.
Magically then, despite the long flowering period, the fruit all ripen within just a few weeks of each other in January. So you get amazingly aromatic lemons and blossoms at the same time!
If you can create the right conditions for year-round growing, or live in a climate where citrus thrives, fresh Meyer lemons can make the dark days of winter feel sunshine-filled. Plus chef’s love them – even homested cooks like me can appreciate the exceptional quality and taste profile of this winter beauty.
I did something that others might consider crazy on purpose. I ignored my Simplestead potager garden for 4 weeks during our hottest, driest period.
We’ve had less than an inch of rain in the last 4 weeks and most of it fell today just before I came outside to document the condition of the garden after my near total neglect. Our temperatures were also over 85 F for 23 of those 28 days of neglect.
I didn’t water.
I didn’t weed.
I didn’t stake or trellis anything.
I didn’t pick off insects or coddle any fungal prone plants.
I just harvested the things that would rot if I didn’t pick them. That included tons of carrots, beets, peppers, cantaloupes, tomatoes, beans, and more. That harvesting took me a grand total of about 15 minutes over the last 4 weeks.
This is not my normal gardening practice. I love gardening and spending time in my garden. So, it was actually hard for me to stay away. But, this is a test/proof of concept garden that I created for the purpose of writing this blog.
Gardening is not a just a way to produce food. It’s a relationship with your environment. So, I don’t recommend that you practice total neglect of your garden as a habit. However, there are times when you can’t garden as much as you want to. Stuff comes up and you simply can’t get outside to do your routine maintenance and enjoy time in your garden. In other words, life happens.
If you put the time into planning, developing your soil, and choosing the right plants for your garden, and keep your garden constantly planted, then your well-planned potager can keep on without you for a while.
Yes – it may look a bit like a jungle with sprawling tomatoes, out of control melon vines, and a few pests (deer in my case) may visit and eat your bean or sweet potato vine leaves while you are away.
Still your garden grows on. Plus, it can be easily worked back into condition with an hour or two of care.
Most importantly, that density of planting from that jungle like atmosphere protects the soil and all the biological life encouraged with compost and compost tea when you do have time to invest in your garden.
Now that this experiment is over, I’ll be harvesting mass quantities of vegetables today. Despite the sprawl, there are ripe, ready to eat tomatoes hiding in those vines.
Although the beet greens are a bit sun-scalded and crispy, the roots are are plump and ready to eat. I’ll be freezing about 30 pounds of cantaloupe for our smoothies. A few that didn’t ripen fully will go to the chickens. I’ll also harvesting every pepper and bean I can find to encourage the plants to get back to production.
After that, I’ll do a couple hours of maintenance such as getting some light to my garlic chives which were nearly swallowed by the tomatoes. Generally though, I’ll just spend some quality time with my garden again.
There will be lots more potager-related posts to come. However, since it is now time to start super-powering your garden with poop, I’m going to switch gears for the next few posts and talk about raising chickens the Simplestead way.
Is it a beautiful ornamental or a possible invasive pest? Where I live now, with many below freezing days of winter, this lovely tree has no chance of becoming invasive because it’s not cold hardy. So, I am going to rate it as a beautiful ornamental. In fact, I have to grow it in a pot that I can cart in and out of my greenhouse on a mover’s trolley as needed.
Until recently, it never even occurred to me to try to grow this beauty in my mountainous region of North Carolina. However, I have set upon a journey to grow as many spices as I can, understand their uses, and appreciate the cultures that first brought them to our attention.
The annatto tree and spice is a great place for me to start my journey because it is one of the few spices native to the Americas. No, it doesn’t come from the part of North America where I live. But it did grow like a native in the landscape of my childhood.
I first encountered this tree growing up in Southern California. My dad used to take me walking along the sidewalk-lined suburban streets of our Orange County neighborhood. The area we lived in was “well-established”. That’s a nice way of saying it had a lot of older homes that weren’t as eye catching as the McMansions beginning to pop up in tracts on all the empty lots nearby.
Personally, I loved where we lived though because every home had a variety of mature landscaping plants. There was lots of eucalyptus, lemons, oranges, avocados, olives, persimmons, figs, pomegranates, jacaranda, and more.
One house had a wall of annatto trees growing so thick across the front lawn, you had to try hard to see the house hiding behind. I suspect that was what the owner wanted since their home was on what had become a busy road as all the new shopping centers started to move in.
That area of the sidewalk seemed constantly stained red from the spiky seed pods that fell, cracked open, and then after a few rains, were ground in by the feet of pedestrians like me. A few times, I collected some seeds still intact. I remember trying to use them as my own homemade version of sidewalk chalk.
In a fit of recent nostalgia, I scoured the Falling Fruit site (a resource for urban and suburban food foragers) to see if anyone reported those edible seed pods still falling on the sidewalk of my youth. Unfortunately, no one has reported them.
It could be that my memories have outlived those trees which are only reputed to have a 20-25 year productive life. Or, perhaps, they grow on renewed by self-seeding. Maybe passerbys today still smash those seeds into sidewalk stain as I once did, never realizing the culinary value falling at their feet.
The Secret Ingredient
Despite the fact that I grew up on “ethnic foods” as a resident of Southern California and must have had more than my fair share of dishes seasoned with achiotte paste or the commerical version called sázon, I never connected that plant to its culinary applications until I became a cheese maker.
When I made my first cheddar at home, I was shocked to discover it had a pale whitish-yellow color and not the rich orange I had been expecting. A little research revealed that annatto was used a colorant to make cheddar appear orange.
After that I experimented a bit using the annatto seeds, also called achiote when used as a spice, as a colorant and to flavor rice and chicken dishes. In my experience, it isn’t particularly strong flavored on its own. Yet, it seems to somehow enhance the flavor of other things it also seems to make the fats in foods seem more supple and smooth and less oily.
Growing Your Knowledge of Annatto
In yet another phase of my appreciation and understanding of this sidewalk-staining, spice-emphasizing, cheese-colorant, I recently learned that those towering trees that turned a California lawn into an impenetrable forest, can also be kept compact and grown in containers.
As such, I now have a specimen growing in my greenhouse. In the not to distant future, since this plant is purported to grow quickly, I’ll know a lot more about how to use it and why it is so deserving of a place of honor in the home spice rack.
In the meantime, here are some articles I have found helpful in my quest to better understand this beautiful spice plant.
Thai basil grows very similar to other basils. It does well in fertile, well-draining soils, and can tolerate some drought. It has been much slower to flower than the common Genovese basil and more resistant to bolting in hot, dry weather. This basil grows a bit slower than many other basils, but puts on a spectacular flower show and is worth the wait.
Taste and Smell
Thai basil is more pungent than other basils. It has a peppery, licorice-taste that is very pronounced. It is definitely a savory herb which is why it balances so nicely in sweet and sour dishes or things like curry with a sweet coconut milk base.
Thai basil has a strong, lingering black licorice or anise scent that becomes even stronger when dried. This is one of the best drying basils I grow in my garden.
Thai basil has light green leaves with rose hued stems. The leaf color is a bit more lime or yellow-tending than than the shiny, brightness of the more common Genovese basil. The leaves are also more narrow and tend to be smaller and more angular in shape.
Thai basil leaves seem more prone to insect damage than is typical for the other kinds of basil I have experience growing. It also seems to be less of a nutrient scavenger than other kinds of basil and requires more care to avoid chlorosis (yellowing of the leaves).
Thai basil has blooms that more closely resemble lilac flower clusters than the tall flower stakes that are more typical of most basil plant. They are incredibly beautiful in clusters. The flowers also hold up well when cut and are excellent in aromatic herb bouquets.
This is one of the more compact and slower growing basil plants I have grown. It also doesn’t spread as wide even with regular pinching to encourage bushiness.
These plants seem to do best in direct sunlight. The interior leaves show a lot of yellowing if plants aren’t allowed enough room to grow.
Mature height in fertile soil ranges between about 2-3 feet, width is about 1 foot wide. I only grow this plant in fertile, vegetable garden soil because it seems more finicky than other basil plants.
Starts easily from seed. Can be direct planted or transplanted.
It does exceptionally well growing through hot weather even with minimal rain or watering and is slow to flower even under extended heat stress.
Needs warm temperatures to germinate. Seeds started in late May in North Carolina, in 80 degrees F germinated in 4-5 days. Germination rates seem lower than for most basils I have tried. So, I heavily over seed for this plant.
Water daily until plants are at least a few inches tall for faster growth rates.
Thai basil’s compact size and slower growth rates make it more weed prone in general. By starting more plants, closer together, then harvesting the thinnings, to use in cooking, you get more yield and have less weed competition at the outset.
This basil also seems to need regular fertilizing for peak health. Compost tea applied weekly to the roots intensifies the color and aroma of the leaves.
Persian basil grows very similar to other basils. It does well in fertile, well-draining soils, and can tolerate some drought. It has been much slower to flower than the common Genovese basil and more resistant to bolting in hot, dry weather.
Taste and Smell
Persian basil is very mild in flavor. It can be used fresh in salads as whole or chopped leaves. It has a hint of licorice and mint as well as the savory, green flavor common to most basil. The leaves are a bit meatier than Italian-style basils.
There is a hint of cinnamon in the flower blossoms. The leaves smell more strongly of licorice than some other basils. Overall, though the aroma is mild like the flavor.
Persian basil has green leaves with purple hued stems and veins. The leaf color is darker and more subdued than the shiny, brightness of the more common Genovese basil. The leaves are also more narrow and elongated in shape.
Persian basil has purple flower stakes with white flower blooms. The stakes grow from the center of the leaves starting the size of a button and growing to 3-4 inches in length.
The plants are about 1 foot wide with minimal pinching. However they can spread out a few feet if you continually pinch growing heads to encourage bushiness.
They also seem perfectly happy to grow in large , overcrowded groups, and do an excellent job at stifling weeds. The plants along the outer perimeter will lean over to get sun and air and then set new roots and spread. Even well-shaded inner leaves show no signs of discoloration. So, I suspect this plant can even tolerate a fair amount of shade or being grown in indirect window sunlight.
Mature height in fertile soil ranges between about 3-4 feet. The plants are shorter in drier, less fertile soil.
Starts easily from seed. Can be direct planted or transplanted.
This basil grows slower than other basils at first. So it may need weeding for the first few weeks. But then it catches up quickly and does exceptionally well growing through hot weather.
Needs warm temperatures to germinate. Seeds started in late May in North Carolina, in 80 degrees F germinated in 2-3 days.
Water daily until plants are at least a few inches tall for faster growth rates.
Thinning is optional. This plant seems to self-select the winners if you over seed and then adjusts well to overcrowding.
It’s beautiful to plant in bunches for more impact than from individual plants.
The garden explosion happened. Those tiny, seedlings I showed pictures of in the last post Plant Your Homestead Potager suddenly started to look like fully-fledged plants.
Even when you visit your garden daily, and observe the incremental growth, there is still this moment when you realize “Wow, this is a real garden.”
Honestly, it was a real garden from the first moment you poured your intentions into it. Yet, it always seems so surprising when your effort starts to pay off and your aesthetic ideals of a garden are gratified.
Stop and enjoy this moment. Savor it like you would a perfect, but fleeting sunset. Take some mental, or actual pictures, to refer back to from year to year. Then, get out your harvest basket and scissors and get to work.
Harvesting as Health Care for Your Garden
This is the point in time when you really have to be diligent. If you don’t stay on top of your harvesting and garden care, your plants’ heath will decline quickly.
So-called “pests” will come to help eradicate failing plants. We call them pests, but really they are just nature’s helpers, culling the poor performers so they don’t go to seed and start generations of weak plants.
As plants fail, the biological life in your soil will lose their sense of purpose. Those damaged plants begin to process nutrients poorly, leaving too much behind in the soil. . Those once eager biological workers start to go dormant from boredom as the nutrients they provide begin pile up and their efforts go unappreciated by dying root systems.
Don’t worry. This does not need to be the fate of your garden.
All you need to do is harvest and replenish what you take. Then, you’ll have a continuous supply of fresh food. Your soil life will be busy and satisfied. Your plants will be healthy and you won’t need the services of nature’s pest-like plant killers who offer a quick end to suffering plants.
The Continuous Harvest
If you took my advice and over seeded, you can use your scissors to cut out the extra plants that are smaller in size. Leave the largest, healthiest plants in the ground to grow out to maturity.
The Art of Thinning
If all those extra plants with edible greens look healthy, and aren’t developing slug problems, I thin in increments. That way I get a harvest of baby greens every day for a week or two. Even a small handful of fresh tasty greens can spruce up an omelet, make a great side salad, or be tossed with olive oil and salt when you need something salty and crunchy on warm days.
If plants show signs of insect damage or leaf discoloration, then I thin brutally, leaving only those plants that have the best chance of success. Heavy rains followed by periods of hot, sunny days can create fungal problems and encourage slugs to move in. So, when that happens, I also speed up my thinning process to maintain good air circulation and avoid creating a slug heaven.
– Minimally Thinned Root Vegetables
Most plants ultimately need plenty of space to grow to mature size. However, there are a few that can grow to a large size even in close contact with fellow plants. For example, beets, turnips, and radish can grow in groups of 3-4, almost right on top of each other in fertile soil.
The bulb portions of the plants just push each other apart as they swell. Then, you can carefully harvest the biggest of the bulbs and let the others continue growing. You do need good airflow around your clusters though. So, you will still need to thin many of the greens for good root production.
– Non-Edible Plant Thinning
Even for plants that I can’t eat the thinnings of, like tomatoes and peppers, I still thin incrementally. High-performing, young plants really seem to benefit from a little competition and companionship at the outset of planting.
This method requires is a delicate balance though because once the strongest plants are established, they can become stunted by crowding. Usually within 2-3 weeks in warm weather and 3-4 weeks in cool weather, it’s time to let your winners make the rest of their journey toward plant maturity on their own.
Leave Non-eDible Roots In Place
As I’ve mentioned in other posts, bacteria and fungi form relationships with plant roots. So, if you rip out your plant roots every time you harvest, you end up taking a lot of those amazing garden helpers with you.
Instead, leave the roots in the ground when you can. Small roots decompose quickly. Even large roots can be left to decompose if you have room to plant around them.
If your plants have become pest infested, though, you’ll want to pull those roots out and throw them away so that you don’t run the risk of harboring lots of larva in your soil and plant matter.
Here’s an example of my kohlrabi seedlings before thinning.
Now, here’s what it looked like after I harvested the baby greens to use for making a variation on Palak Paneer. I only left the two largest plants on the outer edges of the photo so that they can continue to grow to maturity. The rest were dinner and delicious!
If you need another application of organic fertilizer for your heavy feeders, then you can do this after you complete your thinning process.
When using slow-release, meal-based fertilizers like feather meal and bone meal, or organic 4-4-4 mixes, you can sprinkle them directly on the soil all around your plants. I like to cover them with a thin layer of compost and then water them in to help them start to penetrate the soil.
When you eventually harvest your mature plants, you’ll also want to fertilize the bed again before you start a new crop. Then, you’re all set to start growing your next crop.
As you finish harvesting your cool season crops, you’ll most likely want to put in warm season crops. For example, if your March planted peas are spent, then it might be time for your late-May planted green beans. When cabbage comes out, okra might go in.
If you are removing warm season crops, it may be time to start planting for a fall harvest. Fall gardening really starts in summer. This is usually around late July through mid-August. But the exact timing for fall planting depends on your climate and growing season.
Your fall plants need to be well-established before your day-length shortens too much and soil temperatures cool. Winter cover crops are generally started around this time too.
If it’s not quite fall planting time, you may need to grow a short term, hot season cover crop like buckwheat or cowpeas. The important thing is never to leave your beds unplanted.
I often put my new seeds in the ground a few days before I harvest the entire mature plant (e.g. cabbage heads). That gives the seeds time to acclimate and activate. Once I remove the ready to harvest plants, those eager seeds seem to sprout instantly.
Note, this only works if you can leave the mature plant roots in the ground. You don’t want to disturb newly planted seeds by pulling out old roots.
Come and Cut Greens
For densely planted come and cut greens, like the lettuce bed shown above, I harvest in sections. This promotes good air flow and keeps the bed looking full even after I fill my salad bowl.
You want to leave at least an inch of leaf producing part of each plant so that the lettuce leaves can regrow from the base. Many of your lettuce plants will actually make multiple heads and start to become more productive as you harvest them.
Once that happens, you’ll be able to harvest a section of your bed almost daily . Then, a week later when you’re ready to re-harvest that first section, it will be lush and ready to cut again.
If your plants start to bolt (send up flower stalks), you need to harvest them all the way to the soil at each cutting to kill those plant and make room for more. Right after you cut a bolting section down, add some more fertilizer to the soil and cover with 1-2 inches of compost. Then, re-seed your next round of lettuce right over your just butchered patch.
If you do this in segments, your garden bed will never be completely bare while waiting for new seedlings to sprout. When you get your timing exactly right, then you never want for lettuce.
In hot climates, your second planting may need to be a collection of oak leaf lettuces or alternative greens like New Zealand spinach that better tolerate excessive heat.
Salad Preparation Tip
Cut your lettuce up into bite size portions and put them directly in your salad spinner in the garden. Then, all you need to do is give them a rinse and spin back in the house and they are ready to eat.
Also, if you do have issues with slugs, they tend to be heaviest in the bottom inch or two of the cut leaves.By trimming that area and throwing it on top of your compost pile to dry out in the sun, you remove the slugs from your lettuce bed and have fewer pests to wash out of your cut lettuce.
Your timing and efficiency at harvesting vegetables from your potager will get better the more you do it. Take notes on what works and what doesn’t. Visualize ways that you’ll improve your process for next year as you go along, even if it’s too late to correct things this year.
In my experience, the best time to plan your garden for next year is actually right now while you are in the thick of the growing season. You may not formalize your plan until winter when you have time to sit down and write it out. But, by solving challenges and making plans for your future garden now, and keeping good notes so you remember, your work will be mostly done before you put your future plantings on paper.
Next time, we’ll start to get into the details of making compost right in the garden. In the meantime…Bon Appétit!
Seeds may look like tiny, innocuous things. But they have the power to explode into life with the least bit of encouragement. Often, a little water and warmth can ignite that spark of transformation.
The Seed Life Cycle
The tiny living being that emerges has no idea what waits on the other side. All it knows is that when the conditions are right, it must try to become.
When soaked in water, the contents of the seed swell. This swelling expands the outer shell allowing the little life inside to begin to breath. As it breaths, it grows and develops until it bursts through the seed exterior.
In the beginning, that little seedling is completely supported by nutrients from the seed and its own will to live. Within just a couple of days though, the seedling loses its independence. Then, it must rely on its environment to provide for its needs.
Tentatively, plant parts start to reach up for sun. Simultaneously, almost imperceptible roots reach down for nutrients in the soil. As the plant feels sun and tastes soil, it begins to grow.
Its original seed-breaking leaves, called cotyledons, eventually give way to true leaves. These leaves are tiny versions of what the mature plant leaves will look like. The delicate, young roots also branch and dig, anchoring themselves into the earth.
The stem of the developing plant is something like a service elevator. Leaves use the stem to send encapsulated sunshine (or sugars) down to the roots. The roots use the stem to send nutrients and water drawn from the soil up to the leaves.
As long as that exchange of energy keeps happening, day by day, the roots grow deeper and wider and the plant grows taller and larger. This growth is very slow at first, but as the plant gains size, the growth speeds up.
Eventually, the plant bears fruit. All plants bear fruit in some way.
Fruit is a metaphor for the plants reproductive method. It may be the actual fruit, like an apple, that contains seeds. It may also be a flower head that produces seeds. Sometimes it is fat roots that store enough energy to send up new plants (e.g. ginger rhizomes and potato tubers).
The dream of a seed is to grow into a plant so that it can send more seeds out into the world. In other words, it wants to be fruitful and multiply.
The Intricacies of Seed Life
That’s a very simple explanation of the seed life cycle. But most people don’t even look that closely at this magical process that forms the basis of life as we know it. When you do begin to pay attention, it becomes obvious that all life starts from some kind of seed which is either nurtured, or not, by the environment around it.
Gardeners know better though. We realize how delicate, hopeful, and incredible seed life is. We respect this process and depend on it to sustain our bodies and our souls.
For example, we know that some seeds will only start when exposed to warmth, moisture, and sunlight. If the outer seed skin can’t feel the sunlight, or something like it, then nothing happens.
Other seeds will only germinate in darkness. They must believe they are enveloped in soil to attempt the treacherous trek from seed to a living, breathing plant form.
Frankly, some seeds are simply too weak to spark to life even when offered the perfect conditions. That’s why we always start more seeds than we need. We are hopeful, yet we are also practical.
We gardeners also know that even the strongest seeds only grow into healthy plants with proper encouragement. We do this by starting our seeds in loose disease-free soil. We add fertilizer and water as necessary for growth. Then we ensure warmth or coolness and sun or shade to make our plants feel at home. Much like taking care of any baby, proper care is essential to plant growth.
The Homesteading Life Cycle
Homesteading is also very much like this. Your dream of homesteading is like the seed. With the right conditions, it can spark a whole new life for you. However, you have to create the right conditions for that to happen.
To sprout the seed, you must commit to start homesteading now. That act alone will generate all the energy you need to break through and actually begin living your dreams.
Yet, to grow the dream from its early development phases to something grand and life-encompassing, you must also feed it. Similar to the way the leaves and the roots work together, in homesteading your mind and body must also work together to grow your dream.
The Mind Body Connection
You must learn new concepts with your mind. Then you must practice them with your body. Many people who want to become homesteaders stop at the learning part. They gather so much information but never put it to use.
The result is basically like sprouts grown on your counter. They start out with all the promise of a new plant. Without soil though, they will never become more than sprouts.
Some people stay at the sprout phase of homesteading. They try a new recipe that is closer to cooking from scratch. Or, they buy some herbs from the garden center and grow them in a sunny window sill until the plants get root bound or light deprived and start to die.
There’s nothing wrong with doing these things. However, if you really want to grow to your full potential, you need to follow the entire life cycle of your dream, from seed to seed. You must germinate your ideas, feed them, and give them the care they require to be fruitful.
For today, it is enough to understand the magic contained within the seed. Soak in this idea of how seeds become plants, how dreams become realities. Revel in the absolute wonder of the fact that something so small and seemingly inert can be the basis of an entire new life.
Time to Try
If you are feeling adventurous, and have the time, then why not also try to sprout some seeds to begin developing a deeper understanding of how things grow.
Don’t just go through the motions. Pay attention to the process.
Write down observations like how long you needed to soak your seeds until they swelled or how long it took them to germinate. Also, notice if any of the conditions in your home seem to have an impact on the seeds. Did most of the seeds sprout during the day when your house was warmer or at night when it was cooler?
Observation is one of your best tools for becoming an effective homesteader. Start practicing it every day.
How to Grow Sprouts
Most of us are used to seeing or eating the mung bean sprouts from the grocery store. However, that’s just the beginning of what you can sprout. If you can eat the leaves and seeds of a plant, then you can generally eat its sprouts too.
What to Sprout
For this exercise, you probably don’t need to buy anything.
Do you have any dried whole beans in the pantry (pinto, Northern, kidney, cranberry, turtle, black-eyed peas, lentils, etc.)? Start with those.
If you don’t have any whole beans, then you may need to buy those. But you can get them for a couple dollars at any grocery store and most convenience stores.
Easy Sprouting Tray
Next, do you have any plastic take-out food containers or other inexpensive plastic storage container to sacrifice to this project? Flat, rectangular containers work really well. However, any container will do.
Because your seed begins to breath from the moment is saturated with water, poke a couple holes in the lid of your container to allow for airflow. Those takeout lids tend to crack when you poke them with a knife, so I typically only make one hole on each side of the lid.
Other than that, all you need is a fine sieve to strain your soaked beans.
If you don’t have one of those, a colander lined with a thin towel or part of an old sheet will work too.
Basically, you just need something that will allow you to strain the excess water from your beans without damaging them.
As with any food preparation, wash your hands and clean up your kitchen work area and utensils before getting started.
Wash your beans thoroughly by putting them in a fine sieve, or towel-lined colander, under your running faucet for several minutes. Cold water is fine.
Spread your seeds in your container and cover them with water to soak for 4-12 hours or until they plump.
Once your beans are plump, strain away the extra water using the sieve or towel-lined colander. Then wash them again.
Spread the beans out in your container so each bean gets good airflow. Put your punctured lid on top to increase the warmth inside the container and help maintain the humidity.
Twice a day, transfer your beans back into your sieve or colander, run water over them, and then spread them out in your container again. Washing keeps the beans moist and prevents mold and bacteria from building up.
After a couple days of doing this, your beans will start to sprout. At this point, stop transferring them to the sieve or colander. Instead, just add water to your container and then carefully tip it sideways to drain completely.
Within 1-2 days of germination, your sprouts are ready to eat. Shake lose the seed shells and enjoy.
Similar to eating any uncooked vegetable product (e.g. lettuce, spinach) that has come into contact with potential soilborne pathogens, all seeds may contain E. Coli, Salmonella, Listeria, etc.. As such, your sprouts may be a potential source of foodborne illness.
I personally eat them raw all the time. But, food safety experts say the only safe way to eat a sprout is fully cooked. Please use your own discretion on eating raw agricultural products.
One Skill, Multiple Uses
Once you have an understanding of how seeds germinate, you can use this information to start an entire garden or food forest. There are a few more steps involved after starting seeds. However, it begins with a seed and the courage to start something new.
Down the road, when you add livestock to your homestead, you can use your knowledge of sprouting seeds with water, warmth, and light to grow fodder for your livestock. The only difference between growing sprouts on your counter and growing it on a grand scale for your livestock, are the tools used.
In homesteading, all skills are simple, sometimes they are just scaled up to a level that makes them appear complicated. Sprouting seeds on your counter is only the beginning of something much bigger.
Why do you want to homestead? Greater security? Self-sufficiency? To increase your skills? For a deeper connection to nature? Better health? Tastier food? To live a simpler life?
All of the above and then some?
We all have different reasons for wanting to homestead. Each of us also has unique ideas of what homesteading means. I think, that’s how it should be.
Homesteading is a deeply personal act. This is your dream. This is your life.
Now, I may not know your exact dreams or reasons for wanting to homestead. I also don’t know your personal living conditions, your financial situation, your challenges, or your aptitudes. We are strangers connected only by our desire to homestead.
Yet, even without knowing you, I know with certainty, there is only one big difference between you and those people who are already living their homestead dreams.
Here it is.
Those other people got started.
They are not smarter than you. They are not more creative. They don’t have magical powers to grow things or make things that you simply don’t possess. But they did make up their mind to start homesteading.
You have to start the journey one day, one idea, and one activity at a time. Simple steps are all it takes. Trying to do anything other than starting simply is an invitation to frustration and failure.
In fact, if you choose the simple path to homesteading, then deciding to homestead is the hardest part. It gets much easier from here.
Make up your mind that you will start now. Don’t wait until you have your dream property, more time, or more money.
Begin exactly where you are. Use the things you already have. Rely on the skills that have gotten you this far in life.
Then, take focused, but simple steps toward your ultimate dream each and every day. Even the smallest steps in the right direction move you forward toward the homesteading future you want.
I know the excuses are already starting to line up in your head. I heard them all too.
I don’t know how. It’s too complicated. I don’t have land. I don’t have money. I’m afraid. It’s selfish. It’s too late. My family won’t understand. I don’t deserve a beautiful life.
These are all lies. They are the lies we tell ourselves so we don’t have to take risks and reach for the things we want. And they are a total waste of time.
As someone who lives on the other side, on the homestead of my dreams, I assure you, the only difference between me and you is that I heard the excuses. Then, I made the commitment to homestead anyway.
My Wish For You
Now, I may not know you personally, but I want this life for you. I want it for you because you are the kind of person who would wish for self-sufficiency over mindless consumerism.
You want to grow your food so that it is wholesome and nutritious — not just for yourself but for our planet.
You want to raise your own livestock – whether it be worms, honey bees, quail, chickens, ducks, rabbits, goats, cows, pigs, or other animals – so you can treat them with dignity and face those relationships honestly.
You want to make things yourself so you don’t have to bring home endless plastic packaging and support hidden human and environmental costs.
I want this for you because you are the kind of person who wants a meaningful and mindful life. So, even though we might be strangers, we’ve got some things in common.
I started this website so I could share simple steps to help new homesteaders start living their dreams right now. That’s because I know homesteading is only hard if you try to do it all at once or take on more than you are ready for.
When you do it slowly, methodically, with careful intention, it is easy. It’s personally enriching and downright enjoyable. Plus, you get faster results doing it the simple way than you do bull-dozing into it without laying the ground work first.
No, it’s not going to be perfect. Yes, there is a lot of work involved. But, your life is not perfect now. And you are no stranger to hard work.
The difference is that when you start taking simple steps to create your homestead, the hard work you do and the imperfections that result are somehow exactly what you need to feel at home in your own life.
Home – as in a place to belong – is the defining word in homestead. And I think it’s what we are all really looking for.
Yes, this is the pep-talk post. Truthfully though, just by making a commitment to start living the homesteading life you want — choosing that act of bravery — sets in motion the start of your incredible homesteading journey.