Obviously summer is over in the northern hemisphere, where I live, so I am currently engaged in preparing my garden for winter. This used to be a much less involved task, but now that I’m a year into my horticulture program I know a lot of stuff I didn’t previously. Here’s what I’m doing to get everything ready for winter.
We had some major successes and major failures this year, and since I didn’t chronicle them in real time (I guess that counts as one of our failures) I’m going to list them all here. We also have some very specific plans coming up for the winter and next year you can expect to hear more about. Finally, there are some general ideas we’re tossing around that we still need to settle on and decide a timeline for.
Although my garden is still producing armfuls of kale, and a few tomatoes here and there, garden season is pretty much over. It was a pretty good run, the best I’ve ever had In this house, but it’s over now. All that’s left to do out there is spread compost and plant some bulbs. I need flowers in the spring. I need them.
This was, by far, our most successful year gardening in this home, but over all I’m still disappointed. For having planted 15 tomato plants, we got remarkably few tomatoes. I got a whopping 1 squash, a spaghetti squash, none of the rest of my plants (which included 4 zucchini, 4 summer squash, 3 spaghetti squash, and 2 pumpkins) ever even produced a female blossom. I only got a tiny bit of lettuce, one cabbage, a few cucumbers (although I consider that a victory given how late in the year I planted cucumbers), and no spinach – it bolted too quickly.
This yard is very hard to grow in. The sun exposure is just not very good. Everywhere we can put plants is either too shady or the sun is too intense. It’s hard to find balance.
Jeremy suggested building a couple of raised beds in the middle of our back yard, where we get the best sun, but since we are likely going to be selling our house in a year or two, I don’t want to do anything that’s going to mar up our lawn too badly. This is a white bread house in a white bread neighborhood and if we want to sell it, it’s going to need to appeal to white bread buyers, which means pretty lawn. That’s why most of our garden is currently in containers.
But I can’t deny that our garden is going to be severely hindered by current conditions, so after a little bit of research, I decided that a straw bale garden would be a good choice for us next year. It would kill the grass under it, but when the time comes to sell, it’s easy enough to reseed or lay down a few rolls of sod.
Generally, I’m a big believer that food should be grown in soil. Preferably soil in the ground. Things like containers and hydroponics systems are cool and do produce plants and harvests, obviously, but I’m not certain they really provide the plant with everything it needs to produce optimal food. There is so much we still don’t know about what’s going on in soil, and food, for that matter, that I don’t think we can really know with confidence that we are providing everything a plant needs in a liquid or bagged formula. Also, the set ups are expensive and complex, especially hydroponics, which makes it not super accessible.
Straw bale gardening has a lot of these issues. You aren’t growing in soil, and you’re relying to a large degree on store bought fertilizers. But, you are growing in composting straw right on top of the soil, which probably puts it pretty close to soil nutrition wise (microorganisms and whatnot from the soil can move up into it as it decomposes), and I can do much of the fertilization with my own compost, so I’m going to give it a try. It’s also cheap, so why not?
Now that it’s (essentially) winter, our homesteading doesn’t stop, it just shifts gears. The garden is no longer my focus, instead I’m focusing on fermentation, soap making, bread baking, sewing, quail care, and probably some winter gardening. We do have cold frames I’d like to try growing greens under again. Last winter I was not terribly successful because I forgot to water them. Jeremy will have home improvement projects of his own.
Winter is not really a slowed down time for us. It’s just different stuff we are doing. What kind of homesteading/self sufficiency stuff occupies your winters?
I can’t tell you how often I am asked (or hear others ask) what works for weeds. This is a tough question to answer. What do you mean by “works”?
If you are meaning what will make them go away and never come back, the answer is nothing. Even in Carthage, where the Romans salted the earth so many centuries ago to obliterate any chance of culture forming there again, there is now fertile earth that supports, amongst many plant life, weeds.
But perhaps you mean just for your lifetime, or even just a year? Salting the earth might work for your lifetime, but for just a year, I’d say nothing “works”. Nothing organic, nothing that they sell at the hardware store or garden center, nothing will get them all for very long. Chemicals break down, and anything legal today is designed to break down fairly quickly to minimize it’s risk of getting into our water or doing long term damage to the soil (note: it still does those things, just to a lesser degree than, say, DDT). So if you spray something, it might kill the plants, but there may be seeds still in your yard that will outlast the chemical you sprayed, and will sprout and grow. Or new seeds will be blown in, or carried in by birds, mice, squirrels, etc.
Honestly, though, I’m skeptical that most chemical solutions, whether store bought (like RoundUp) or home made (like the dish soap and vinegar concoction everyone seems so fond of online) actually kill weeds. Having used them a few times in my life, I’m pretty sure all they do is wilt the leaves. So before long, they spring back, along with all those seeds in mentioned above. Meanwhile, we’re getting harmful chemicals into our water and air through spraying, and we’re killing off the micro biome in the soil that allows plants to get nutrients from the soil (which eventually end up in us and other animals that eat those plants), decompose dead things, and support any kind of life that hasn’t specifically evolved to thrive in sterile soil (in other words, weeds). The eventual outcome of spraying, yes, even vinegar, is the creation of soil in which only weeds can grow, and if the weeds have no competition for space from other plants, they will grow, aggressively. At that point, though, it’s probably good that the weeds grow. They’re the only thing that will bring life back to the dead soil.
Given this experience, and my knowledge of what these chemicals do to our water and the soil microbiome, my preferred methods of weeding are digging and torching. Digging is the most effective. When you get the majority of a root up out of the ground, you know that weed is dead and gone forever. Yes, it may have left seeds, but it won’t survive to make any more. If you don’t get the whole root, there’s still a chance that weed is dead, and even if it grows back, you’ve seriously stunted it’s ability to make seeds, meaning it might reproduce less this season than it would have had you not dug it.
Torching works much like spraying, but is way less toxic. And it’s kind of fun. I don’t think it gets the root very well in most cases, but it’s no worse than sprays, and way better for our soil and water.
I am not sentimental about weeds. You won’t hear me describing dandelions as wildflowers, or keeping lambs ear growing because it can be medicinal. I learned my lesson about letting purslane have a place in my garden, and I advise people to pull anything they don’t recognize in their garden. But I also have taken a realistic viewpoint on weeds, and stopped looking for some magic fix for them. Weeds will always be there, always keep coming, and I have to accept and make peace with the fact that I will always need to meet them to do battle against them in my yard. This is the nature of life, and frankly I would be scared and worried if something stopped their constant assault. The loss of weeds, plants that evolved with civilization to thrive in the destruction we reap upon all other life, would be a pretty big dead canary in our metaphorical coal mine. Weeds are our promise that life can find a way in even the most dismal conditions, and to find a way to squelch that permanently would spell certain doom for more delicate creatures, like ourselves.
I figured I’d catch you guys up on how the gardening is going. Here is the view from the deck.
Well, our garden is in and like every year gardening, I’m learning a lot. We have 13 tomato plants (I think), 7 peppers, carrots, radish, lettuce, kale, spinach, 5 or 6 zucchinis, 3 spaghetti squash, 3 watermelon, 1 cantaloupe, 3 summer squash, 18 or so strawberries, herbs, and two pumpkins (just for S’s and G’s). I never ended up getting my cucumbers in and at this point I’m just going to have to live with that.
Recently a relative posted a quip on Facebook about waiting for exercise to be fun. I responded as I always do to those kind of jokes (and perhaps I should react to them as jokes, and not be this serious about them) that her workouts would be fun when she chose one that is fun. There were a variety of other comments in response, including one from another relative that said something along the lines of “Working out is only fun when you start hating being fat more than you enjoy being lazy.”
I love the idea of vertical gardening! Grow as much food as you can in as little space as possible. This is an important concept for people and the environment as populations become more urbanized and we have to put the brakes on shipping food from long distances to reduce the amount of global warming, asthma, and cancer causing pollutants we put into the only atmosphere we’ve got.
Recently I read this article at Grist and while I liked some parts, I disagreed with much. It argued that urban farms and homesteading were unlikely to do much in the quest to feed an ever growing, ever urbanizing, ever globalizing population, but it might provide some kind of educational benefit or something. Their arguments make sense, if you go into it assuming that everything else they talk about is the right way for things to be. Personally, all I could take away from it is that they were focusing on the wrong problems. This is why intersectionality in environmentalism is so important.
I am not spending a lot of money on seeds this year, and I hope never to again. Seeds are pretty cheap, over all, but they can add up over time. Here’s how I keep seed costs down.