Tag Archives: organic gardening

So You Want to Start a Homestead? Resources and Insights to Get You Started

I’ve had a few people in the last few months ask me about starting a homestead or a small organic farm. A “homestead” or, if you are in the UK “smallholding” refers to a personal or family plot of land where food is grown, animals are tended, and the household economy encouraged (e.g. home crafts and food preservation) with the goal of increased resiliency and self-sufficiency. I thought I’d take the time today to talk about the resources and considerations one needs to do so using permaculture design principles and what I’ve learned from the 5 year process of converting my 3 acre piece of land into a small homestead. I’m also going to talk through what I learned and some of the mistakes that I’ve made in the hopes you don’t have to make the same ones.

Working on the homestead!

Working on the homestead!

 

Your Motivation for Homesteading

I think its important to recognize your motivation for homesteading or farming, up front.  For me, I am deeply motivated to live a more sustainable life and be more self sufficient because of a few reasons: 1) it aligns with my spiritual practices and life philosophy; 2) I feel like I need to be doing “something” and am unhappy with the lack of attention that many in my country pay to matters of long-term sustainability; and 3) It enriches my life and makes me feel more complete.  If you are unsure if this is a way of life you are interested in undertaking, I would suggest spending some time at a friend’s homestead, maybe WOOFing for a while, and getting a sense of what this life is like and if you would be well suited for it.  It does require a ton of knowledge, patience, hard work (manual labor), and constant attention.  But to me, the rewards are well worth it.

 

Understanding the Work of the Homestead

Most of us weren’t raised on farms.  We don’t really know what a full day’s labor really feels like.  If you are starting your own homestead or small organic farm, I think its important to discuss the work involved upfront.  The larger your homestead is, the more work you will need to do (e.g. a 2000 square foot garden is substantially more work than a 500 square foot one).  The more pieces you want to add (livestock, orchards, food preservation, farmer’s market/sales, organic gardens, herbs, a bigger garden each year, and so on) the more work you will need to do.  Just like the druid’s wheel of the year, however, a lot of work is concentrated into certain times of the year–if you live in an area like I do (Zone 6, South East Michigan), the harvest season till late fall represents the hardest work you will do for the year, but you also have substantial amounts of work in the spring in planting out and when the harvest starts to roll in.  If you aren’t sure about the work, go volunteer for a day on a farm or a small homestead and get a sense of what the work might be like.

 

Homesteading and Partnerships/Significant Others/Families

Homesteading is not really just a “fun passtime” but rather is a way of life, a way of seeing and interacting with the world.  And this way of life can bring people together, or it can tear them apart. If you are blessed enough to have a partner/family/significant other who is also on board and wants to homestead, then let the fun begin!  If you have someone in your life who is not on board…..I would carefully talk to them about your plans and see if you can come up with a shared vision where both of you can end up finding what you need and what fulfills you.  Do this before diving in head first with your homesteading plans.  If you continue to be met with resistance, recognize that homesteading and other sustainable activity transforms you in positive and powerful ways…which might not sit well with your partner. If your partner isn’t along for the ride, you might find yourself isolated and with increasing tension between you about your homesteading activities.  Unfortunately, I speak from personal experience…my sustainable living activities led to my divorce almost two years ago, where we did not share a worldview, and where doing this work alone caused a lot of isolation and tension in both of our lives.  I don’t regret my choices and I’m living the life I want to live, but that life has come at a substantial cost….and I think its important to understand that this kind of thing can happen. I do think, with the right kind of couple or family, homesteading could be an incredible way of bringing people together–I’ve seen its magic at work in the lives of a few of my friends.

Can you homestead alone? Yes, but it is not easy, and I honestly think it takes the right kind of person to do so well–a person that is strong, independent, knowledgeable, and enjoys hard labor and has enough free time to make it work.  There are certain things that I, as a single homesteader who also works a full-time job, simply can’t do.  I have to hire a good deal of work out, especially jobs for which I have no skills (construction), ask friends to come and help (like fence building or chicken coop construction), or find WOOFers to help.  If you are considering going it alone, I would strongly recommend instead finding partners/friends/family to join in on the homesteading fun.  Not just for a season, but on a more permanent basis–people come and go, and they can be fickle. See if you can find someone to do a land share, consider starting a small intentional community, or talk to other single friends and see if any others are interested in doing such work.

 

Trellised plants

Trellised plants

Activities Surrounding Homesteading

As a homesteader, there are so many activities you can engage in. The most common ones are growing food, growing herbs (medicinal and culinary), animal husbandry, orcharding, brewing, fermentation, canning food, drying food, root cellaring, soapmaking, candlemaking, medicine making, handcrafts, spinning, weaving, beekeeping, cooking, woodworking, hunting/fishing, and natural building. A good resource to see the kinds of activities that surround homsteading (other than this blog, obviously) is Mother Earth News magazine.  This list is not complete, but it gives you a sense of some of what homesteaders might engage in–and I have a lot more resources listed at the end of this post.  You shouldn’t take on too much at once–start by getting a few things in place that are important to you and then add activities slowly as you are able.

 

How much land do I need?

I would respond with, how much land do you have?  Homesteading can be done in surprisingly small spaces.  The Dervaes family is producing up to 6000 lbs of produce a year on a 66 x 132 foot urban lot in California; other homesteaders have 100’s of acres on which they work.  About six months ago, the UN released a report suggesting that the only way we were going to feed the world is by using small, organic farms–and you can produce a LOT of food in a very small space. Homesteads vary in size, and the less people you have, the smaller you want your operation to be.  Even if I had access to 30 acres, I wouldn’t be able to increase the size of my homestead at all right now because I only have so much time to do it.  I will say, however, that where you choose to homestead is important–you can run into trouble with neighbors and local governments depending on your setup.

 

Using Permaculture Design for Your Homestead

So you’ve made the decision to homestead, you realize it is going to be a lot of work, you have a plot of land, and you’ve thought about its impact on your relationships. Now you want to dive in and build a garden and get some chickens and maybe buy a big farm and….WAIT! Not so fast! I would STRONGLY suggest that before you start a homestead, you spend some time carefully planning and designing–both for the short term but also for the long term.

Start by spending some time reading about permaculture design and using these principles to create your dream homestead. A well-designed homestead, using the existing energy flows and producing no waste, will be a delight to enjoy, while if you kind of hodge podge things together, you might end up causing yourself more stress or work.  The homestead is a whole system, not just a smaller series of parts.  Seeing the homestead as a whole system changes the way you design it, the way you interact, and gives you vision and clarity about the process (I wish I had done more visioning earlier in my process here at my site!)  You want to think about what your site’s strengths and how you can use them effectively–do you have a pond? A lot of woodlands? A slope? Big open fields? An old orchard?

My favorite resource for learning about permaculture design (especially for those who are new to it) is a book called Gaia’s Garden: A Home-Scale Guide to Permaculture (Toby Hemenway). Another book that is a bit more advanced but is also really good is David Holmgren’s Permaculture Design: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability.  I’ll do another post sometime about how I used permauclture design in my homestead here–and you can find many, many examples online of how permaculture can be used to design an awesome homestead.

 

Making Jams

Making Jams

Organic Gardening/Farming

Permaculture design often uses perennials in the place of annuals to create food forests–but every permaculture designer I know also has a healthy sized vegetable garden.  And vegetable gardening is both an art and a science–I have found that I am always learning and growing each year as I work to grow as much of my own food as possible.   There are different approaches to soil preparation, crop rotation and planting, and such, so you want to read a few to get a good idea of what is out there. I’ve read 20+ books on vegetable gardening, and here are what I consider to be the staples that any new homesteader should read: 

  • How To Grow More Vegetables, 8th edition by John Jeavons.  This is an outstanding book and a wonderful introduction to “hardcore” vegetable gardening.  Jeavons provides excellent information on crop yields and how to calculate them, how to prep soil using double-dig approaches (I don’t use this method, but those who do swear by it), crop rotations, cover cropping, crop interplantings, and more.
  • The New Organic Grower: A Master’s Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener by Elliot Coleman. The soil is the most important part of your garden–with healthy soil, your plants do well, are resistant to pests, and are able to produce abundantly.  I think Coleman’s book is ideal because it spends a great deal of time talking about how to create healthy soil–and do so in an entirely sustainable method.  I learned more about soil preparation from this book–and a great deal of other wonderful things. Coleman is also a market gardener, so if you want to grow veggies to sell or start a CSA, that’s another thing this book is useful for.
  • The Winter Harvest Handbook by Elliot Coleman. If you are growing food in a cold climate, you want to buy this book and read it cover to cover.  I’ve adapted Coleman’s methods on a much smaller scale here using small movable hoop houses and have substantially extended my own harvest season.  This book teaches you how to use hoop houses and layers of protection, to grow the right varieties, to time your crops correctly, and much more.  Any serious homesteader needs to read this book!
  • The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times.  By Carol Deppe.  I really like this book, because my own experience has found that I can’t depend on the weather to be consistent anymore–Deppe takes a very humorous and insightful approach to planting crops to achieve “resiliency.”  Her discussion about Native American food growing techniques, short-season crops, and varieties is well worth reading.
  • Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth.  Part of having a good garden is having good seed–planting heirloom seeds and saving seeds from season to season.  This book is a wonderful resource for saving seed and seed starting–I have found it invaluable in learning about how to make my garden more sustainable.

 

General Homesteading Books:

Books that help give you some insight into self reliant living and homesteading are quite abundant these days.  These are some of my favorites, books that give you a lot of good information and can be referred back to again and again.

  • The Self Sufficient Life and How to Live It by John Seymour.  This book is considered the Bible of homesteading and for good reason–it covers anything and everything you need to know about self sufficiency from growing food to brewing to basket weaving.  One of the top books on my list!
  • The Backyard Homestead: Produce All the Food You Need On Just 1/4 Acre! For those of you who want to homestead but don’t have a lot of space, I’d again refer you back to Gaia’s Garden: A Homescale Guide to Permaculture, but I’d also refer you to this book–its a delightful read and teaches you how to pack a great deal of gardening into a little space (Vertical Gardening by Derek Fell is another good choice if you find yourself in this circumstance).
  • Green Wizardry: Conservation, Solar Power, Organic Gardening and Other Hands-On Skills from the Appropriate Tech Toolkit by John Michael Greer.  JMG is one of my favorite authors for a number of reasons, and his Green Wizardry book is an outstanding introduction to many basic activities that  homestead could use such as solar greenhouses and gardening.
  • Mother Earth News magazine (as previously mentioned above). It is a wealth of inspiration on chickens, canning, vegetable varieties to grow, simple living, and more.  They also offer two Mother Earth News fairs!
  • One Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming by Masanobu Fukouka .  Another classic text about farming and agriculture, this book is a fantastic read.

Food and Food Preservation:

If you are going to grow all of that food, preservation becomes a serious challenge! Here are some books to get you started in food preservation:

  • Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage for Fruits and Vegetables by Mike Bubel.  This book is an awesome introduction to the root cellar–it has plans, talks about what varieties are “keepers” (meaning they store well) and how to store all those lovely fruits and veggies from your homestead.
  • Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods.  by Sandor Katz and Sally Fallon.  Fermentation is an art and one that a homesteader should know.  This book is the best fermentation book out there.
  • The Ball Complete Book of Home Preservation by Judi Kingry and Lauren Devine.  This book teaches you how to can pretty much anything and the recipes are really good.  The one thing I will say though is that this book assumes normal pectin and normal sugar amounts (up to 50%) for fruits and fruit preserves.  I have found that another book (listed next) is better with a special pectin, so you can cut the sugar way down.
  • Preserving with Pomona’s Pectin: The Revolutionary Low-Sugar, High Flavor Method for Crafting and Canning Jams by Allison Carroll Duffy. For jams and jellies, use this book instead–your blood sugar will thank you
  • Nurturing Traditions by Sally Fallon.  This is a cookbook that fits very well with a homesteader’s life (especially one that includes animals).
  • Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger Connection by Jessica Prentice.  This is another cookbook, and one that helps you get in line with the seasonal cycles.  Highly recommended!
Use many resources already on the homestead!

Use many resources already on the homestead!

Miscellaneous

There are obviously a lot of other books that one can read regarding a homestead.  I’ll list a few of my favorites here–and I have a lot more that I could add to the list!

  • Natural Beekeeping: Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture, 2nd edition by Ross Conard and Gary Paul Nabhan.  I’ve read about 10 beekeeping books, and this is the one I like the most because Conrad and Nabhan argue that we are in partnership with the bees and that the partnership requires us to treat them with respect.  It is full of a wealth of knowledge about how to start your hives and keep them going!
  • Build Your Own Earth Oven: A Low-Cost Wood-Fired Mud Oven, Simple Sourdough Bread, Perfect Loaves by Kiko Denzer, Hannah Field, and Alan Scott.  Because what homestead wouldn’t be complete without an outdoor kitchen and amazing earth oven?
  • The Soapmakers Companion: A Comprehensive Guide with Recipes, Techniques, and Know-How by Susan Miller Cavitch.  Great if you want to learn how to make some of your own soaps!
  • Home Cheese Making: Recipes for 75 Homemade Cheeses by Ricki Carroll.  The classic cheesemaking book!
  • The Holistic Orchard: Tree Fruits and Berries the Biological Way by Michael Phillips.  I don’t have extensive orchards here, but friends who do swear by this book.  If you are going an orcharding or berry bush route, you want to pick this up and give it a read!

Inspirational Reading:

My last list is more of inspirational reading, things to get you thinking and excited about living a more sustainable life through homesteading.  Some of these are very directly tied to homesteading, others give us philosophies and ways of interacting with nature.

  • Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth: An Introduction to Spiritual Ecology by John Michael Greer.  Another fantastic book by JMG, this one gives a set of seven laws that can help shift perspectives and live more attuned to the land.
  • Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture by Wendell Berry.  This book blew my mind…in fact, it is so amazing, that I am still reading it, two years later.  I read about a page at a time, wait a week, dwell on it, and keep reading.  Berry is brilliant, and anything you read by him will be worth your time. This book, written in the 1970’s, really shows what happened to agriculture and to all of America because of it, and provides some alternative perspectives.
  • Speaking of the 1970’s, go to old bookstores, and pick up anything you can find on sustainable living from the 1970’s – old Foxfire books, solar cookers/ovens, intentional communities, you name it, you will find it and be glad that you did.

I have a lot more I can suggest, but this list and these suggestions are certainly enough to get you started!  I hope this information is helpful to anyone who is looking to start their own homestead.  Readers, if there are books or resources that I missed that should be on here, please comment and I can add them to the list!

Garden and Homesteading Update – March 31, 2014

The Spring Equinox was a mere week and a half ago, and today, for the first time, it felt like spring.  The snows are melting and the warmth is coming.  I think its been a long, hard winter for many of us, and not just because of the weather.  It was a dark time for many, myself included, and I am very happy to see the sun and feel the warmth again. This post provides an overview of the garden in its current state (March 31st) as well as the surrounding landscape.  I’ll conclude the post with some of the things I plan on covering on the blog in the coming year.

 

The Broader Landscape

 

The snows are not yet melted, and the lakes and ponds are still frozen over.  Here’s an image of the spiral labyrinth I’ve been walking on my pond all winter–its still there, and the ice is still quite thick.

Imbolc Spiral

Imbolc Spiral

I visited Lake Huron with a few friends yesterday, and likewise, the Great Lakes are still encrusted with ice.  Here’s a shot from yesterday at White Rock, on the Southwestern edge of Lake Huron.

Altar by the Lake

Altar by the Lake

Druid playing the flute on the frozen lake

Druid playing the flute on the frozen lake (March 30, the garden shots below are from March 31!)

Even with all of this ice, however, the land and lakes are slowly thawing.

 

The Garden and its Magic

 

Today I spent time out in the garden in the afternoon, and it was a really welcome and nurturing time.  I can’t believe how much healing one can gain with only a few hours in the sun and with the plants and soil!

 

First, the most important discovery–plants under my hoop houses survived.  I added an additional layer to their shelter, something called “remay” which is a spun fiber.  I added this in early December, after the cold really set in.  It goes under the main hoop and above the plants and helps give them one additional layer of protection.  This still typically only protects the plants to 5 or 10 degrees or so, however.  With the cold winter, and the evenings of -15 and -17, I thought there was no hope for my little hoops.

 

And yet…look what I found today.  You’ll notice in the first picture that the spinach only in the center survived–that’s because the ground freezes from the edges inward.  But I realized, as my hoops were covered with over 2′ of snow, that that snow itself must have provided a buffer for the spinach.  This likely means that my other zone 6 plants (like my pecan tree back by the circle) had a chance of survival.

Spinach Survived!

Spinach Survived! (And see all that snow, still?)

Hope returns to the world!

Hope returns to the world!

A small radish survivor!

A small radish survivor!

I can’t really describe to you the feeling of opening up that hoop house and seeing those living spinach and radish plants.  I had given up on them as the hoops had mostly caved in under the heavy snow and ice that I wasn’t able to remove, as the darkness set in.  I have always seen the garden as a metaphor for myself, and I’ve had so many cold, dark, barren months recently.  Seeing those spinach and radish plants renewed the promise of spring within me….something survived, and soon, it will be giving me further nourishment and strength.  It was a profound moment, there in the garden.

 

All of the fall garden preparation has paid off–the early spring beds are just filled with wonderful soil.  I am so pleased to see it, as I have spent years making this soil the best it can be. I moved my 2nd hoop house (the one that wasn’t protecting anything), prepped a bed of lettuce and carrots, direct seeded them, and covered them back up.

Amazing soil for lettuce and carrots!

Amazing soil for lettuce and carrots!

One of the other things I wanted to report back on was the effect of the cover crops.  With 2+ feet of snow and ice on the ground, all of the soil in the beds is very compacted–its probably 4″ lower than it was in the fall.  It appears the red clover died off completely….but the winter rye is the hardiest of plants, and it, of course, survived.  Not only did it survive, but it kept my beds covered in it mostly spongy and nice, instead of compacted.  The beds with the winter rye are a full 2-3″ higher than those with bare soil or just straw.

Winter rye bed

Winter rye bed

I began turning the winter rye under today–it requires a full two weeks of wait time before planting after you turn it under.  I’ll work to turn all of it under in the next few weeks–this is a laborious job and one that could be done with petrochemicals, but after the rather lazy winter months, I don’t mind the hard work :).   I also like to add some brown matter to the soil to help the bacteria break down the rye–I added some composted leaves (leaf mulch) as I turned.  A simple garden fork does this work beautifully (much better than a shovel, which I used to use before I discovered the fork).

Turning under the rye

Turning under the rye

Peas germinate at 40 degrees or higher and don’t mind cold soils.  I used the garden fork to aerate the garden bed, and reduce soil compaction. I just stuck it into the bed and tilted it a bit to loosen the soil.  Then I planted my first succession of peas (Early Alaska, saved from last year) and will plant another succession every two weeks for the next 6 weeks.  This will ensure a continual harvest into the early summer.  You can see my homemade trellises here as well (they move easily enough to the new bed).

Planting peas

Planting peas

I checked on the garlic I planted in the fall.  No sign of sprouting yet!

Hoop house, cover crop, garlic bed, and more!

Hoop house, cover crop, garlic bed, and more!

The last thing I did today was make a new, large compost pile.  I had the pile started in the fall, but I pulled out all of the food waste I had stored in my tumbler over the winter, added it to the big pile, and added several layers of leaves, some of the old straw from the garden, etc.  The pile is now almost 5′ high and 8′ wide and 4′ long, so it should break down nicely as the weather warms.

Looking Ahead

To conclude this post, I wanted to share a few more of the things that I’m planning on doing more this year:

  • Bees! Perhaps the most important news is that this year I am going to be a beekeeper for the first time :).  I have the hives, the bees ordered, and the rest of my supplies (suit, foundation, etc) are on their way! I’ve read every book on the subject I can find, joined a beekeeping association, found a bee mentor, have a friend who wants to learn as well, and feel I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.  I’ll have a blog post (or three) on the bees soon.
  • Garden expansion: I’m adding about 700 square feet of growing space (plus pathways, etc) to the garden this year to accommodate new vegetable and plant varieties.  In the fall, I added in numerous additional herb gardens in the front yard, and have seeds started for many new herbs.  The big job here will be fencing, and since fencing has been a struggle, I will share some of my experiences!
  • Herbalism course. I’m starting Jim McDonald’s four season herbal intensive course this upcoming weekend–expect even more posts on herbalism in the coming months.
  • Fermentation and foods: I plan to make my own miso, make more dandelion wine, make other kinds of krauts and fermented foods, and share those processes with you this year.
  • Sacred Trees: I’ll keep posting regularly on my research on sacred trees native/naturalized to the Midwest/Great Lakes area.  I think this is important work, and I am certainly learning a lot more about the trees as part of this series.
  • And lots more! I expect to engage in more natural building, foraging, and many other wonderful sustainable and spiritual activities this year–and I’m excited to share them with you.

 

I also have some very tragic news on the homesteading front.

  • Chooks. In late December, when I was out of town for the holidays, all of my hens passed on to their next life; they made a good meal or two for a hungry raccoon.  My beloved rooster, Anasazi, did survive (he has many lives, clearly) and is living at a friend’s house till I can raise more hens.  This was a combination of an ice storm, insecure living arrangement, loss of electricity, impassible roads, and a bunch of other things.  I have mourned their loss and miss them terribly.  But, I look forward to new hens later this year.

 

I hope that everyone has a wonderful spring–I’d love to hear about how you are enjoying the warmer weather and melting snows and what plans you have for projects this year.

Cover Crops in the Fall Garden: Winter Rye and Red Clover

Clover cover crop (seeded 1.5 weeks before)

Red clover cover crop (seeded 1.5 weeks before in early October 2013)

One of the practices that has been central to my work in my annual (vegetable) garden is the cover crop. In nature, we very rarely see bare soil–the ground is always green and lush most times of the year (and no, I’m not talking about the American lawn–I’m talking about wild, natural areas!)  If you’ve ever seen a construction site where the soil was disturbed–it quickly sprouts up with all kinds of greenery.  This is nature’s way of making sure no nutrients are lost, the compacted soil is broken up (which is what dandelions are good for) and so forth.

 

The cover crop works on the same basic principle–we are growing it to benefit the garden and improve the soil quality in the long run. While you can grow cover crops at many times during the year, I usually use them in the fall to keep my beds nice over winter and give my animals some nutrients. These crops, often consisting of various grains or other helpful plants, have numerous benefits:

 

  • They suppress weeds (called a “smother crop” like winter rye)
  • They hold in the nutrients so that nutrients in the soil doesn’t leech nutrients  when they are tilled or turned back into the garden in the spring, the nutrients are released as the cover crops rot into the soil
  • They add nutrients (different crops add different nutrients; all clovers add nitrogen, for example)
  • They also add food/nutrients for livestock in the winter (called “fodder”)–both my rabbit and chickens are quite happy to have a good crop of winter rye for the four coldest months: December, January, February and March. Winter rye is the only green thing in my yard during these months, and when I let the chickens out, they make a beeline for the rye!
  • They can give land a “rest” in between intensive plantings.
Red clover seeds

Red clover seeds

I planted some winter rye in a small part of my garden last winter; I was amazed to see how successful those beds were this year with increased soil fertility and less weeds.  So I’m expanding my cover crop usage this year, and I’m also experimenting with growing some specifically for feed for the rabbit and chickens.  We’ll see how those experiments turn out!

Fall Garden Bed Prep & Cover Crop Seeding

Fall, especially mid to late October and early November as the leaves are dropping, is the best time to prepare garden beds for the coming year. An abundance of leaves and other mulch materials combined with the possibility of adding cover crops and cooler weather makes it just so wonderful to be outside digging in the dirt.  To prepare your beds for the upcoming season, you might do any number of things, like sheet mulching, adding amendments, using a garden fork to aerate the soil, and so forth.  The basic process you can use is as follows:

1) Slash down your crops once they are done for the year.  I cut them at their bases and leave the roots in the soil (this also helps prevent erosion, and for nitrogen-fixing crops like beans, ensures that the nitrogen remains).

2)  Weed your bed, removing grass, ground ivy, and so forth.  Depending on how vigilant you’ve been, this could be a big job or a small job.  For me, it was a bigger job this year…lol. Luckily, I had help!

3) Add amendments (green sand, azomite, lime, etc) and compost; work this into your soil a bit (but only on the top layer; I usually just work it in a few inches as to not to disturb the soil ecology).  I don’t use any synthetic or even organic fertilizers, although, following Elliot Coleman’s advice in the New Organic Gardener, I do use various rock amendments as well as composted manure (from my chickens, rabbit, or a local farm) and finished compost.  I may also add mulched up leaves depending on the humus/organic matter content of the soil.  A soil test can help you determine what your soil needs.

4) Aerate your bed using a garden fork, shovel or pitch fork; anything that will allow for air to flow in a bit and deal with compact soil.  You can just stick the fork down into the soil and move it around a bit.

5) Once you’ve aerated and added amendments, level out your bed using your rake.  The back of the rake works particularly well for this.  I described leveling out soil with the back of the rake a bit more in my recent post on garlic (with photos).

6) You can take your rake then and use the tongs to make little divots all through your bed–this will help your cover crop seeds sink in a bit (this is not necessary, but is helpful so the birds don’t eat them all).

6) It is at this stage that you add your cover crop.  The cover crop seeds have suggested seeding rates.  Clover are several per inch, while rye is 1 seed per inch or so. I usually cover crop it, then use the back of my rake to work the seeds into the soil a bit.  Then I add a thin layer of straw mulch just to deter the birds.

WWinter rye seed on bare earth

Winter rye seed on bare earth

7) Watch the magic unfold! In a week or two, you’ll see the first sprouts of your cover crop.  If you plant in early/mid October, your crops should have some time to grow before going dormant for the winter.

Winter rye, two weeks old!

Winter rye, two weeks old!

Lima eats winter rye with snow on the ground last winter!

Lima Bean eats winter rye last winter!  Its still covered in snow, but she’s enjoying it.

Chicken and Rabbit Food/Winter Fodder – Winter Rye

I allow my chickens into the garden in the winter to enjoy the cover crops (their manure ends up in the garden either way, so I don’t think any loss of nutrients that they might be eating up with the crops is a problem).

Winter Rye - chickens love it!

Azuki enjoying winter rye last spring!

My rabbit, on the other hand, doesn’t really have the benefit of the cover crops in the garden.  This year, I decided to sow some winter rye for him in his area and covered most of it up with plastic plant trays so that he couldn’t’ eat it down too quickly.  My plan, then, is to give him access to small patches of the winter rye all winter by removing the plastic plant trays.  Once the project is a little further along, I’ll post pictures here.

Planting Garlic: How to Guide

Tis the season to plant garlic (at least here in South East Michigan)!  This post will talk about some tips and techniques for planting garlic in your organic garden.  I planted garlic for the first time a year ago, and it was a very easy crop–no hassle, no pests, and tasted amazing. I learned quite a bit more about planting garlic this year from my good friend and Oakland University Student Organic Farm manager, Jared….so thank you, Jared for teaching me about garlic this season!

Garlic is a crop planted in the fall, and typically harvested in July (for bulbs, the scapes come about a month earlier).  In my region, the best time to plant garlic is now–in mid October.

 

1.  Read up on garlic. One of the things you want to spend time doing when you are preparing to plant any crop is to read and learn about the plant.  One place to learn this is from High Mowing Seeds, where they describe things like plant depth, row spacing, days to harvest, etc.  From their site, we learn a lot about row spacing and mulching, which are important for our work now.

 

2. Prepare your bed. You should try to prepare your bed a week in advance; this allows your soil to settle in preparation for planting.  For my bed, I weeded it and pulled out all the old material (I had amaranth and malabar spinach growing in the bed previously), then I added compost and aerated the soil a bit with a garden fork.  I let the bed rest for one week.

 

3. Obtain some garlic. Like potatoes, when you plant a garlic clove, you will actually be cloning the plant.  I have a few varieties of garlic that I plant each year–all of it was obtained either from friends or from the farmer’s market.

 

4.  Split your garlic into cloves. Your cloves should have as much of the skin as possible; this protects them.  There is a garlic “root crown”, or the thing that attaches the garlic to the base, should be preserved.

Garlic cloves ready for planting!

Garlic cloves ready for planting!

5.  Prepare your trenches.  I planted my garlic every 6″ in rows 12″ apart.  You can use your rake to make nice long trenches.  Since I have 4′ garden beds, I created three rows of garlic (I am planting a 4′ x 10′ area).

Creating trenches

Creating trenches

Trenches finished

Trenches finished

6. Plant your garlic. I used the back of a rake to get down 2″, then sunk the garlic into the bottom of the trench (root crown down).  You can use “finger spacing” to plant your garlic easily–you’ll see me measuring with my fingers (since I know their length is 7″ across, so slightly less than their full length) to plant each garlic bulb.

Finger measuring

Finger measuring

Planting the garlic

Planting the garlic

7. Cover up your garlic.   You can use the back of your rake to fill in the trenches and smooth out your bed.  When you smooth out the bed, you make sure there aren’t pockets where water will lay or run off.

Smoothing out the bed

Smoothing out the bed

7. Mulch your garlic. I straw mulched my garlic with about 4″ of straw—this gives it a wonderful barrier for the snow to come and also helps hold moisture in and prevents erosion from blowing, etc.

Garlic mulched!

Garlic mulched!

8.  Wait and watch. Your garlic is planted, and other than a bit of compost early in the spring, doesn’t really need much attention throughout the season.  In approximately 150-200 days, or sometime around July, your garlic will be ready!

Garlic is certainly a lesson in patience and planning ahead…but its a wonderful way to start your garden for next season.  I love the fact that I am already planting my garden for next season!