By Todd Logan
Anyone can grow, gather, or make a lot of their own food. We do it on four fronts – we garden, we catch a lot of fish, we raise chickens, and we make some of our favorite foods from scratch. What have we learned along the way?
We just wrapped up a very successful second season of our big garden – over 1,200 ft2. We also have three raised bed gardens from our early years. Successful vegetable gardening isn’t hard, but you do have to pay attention to your climate. Which vegetables can survive your weather? We need to provide good soil, sunshine, and nutrients. We planted a good diversity of vegetables this year – beans (green), beets, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, collards, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, onions, parsnips, potatoes, radishes, rutabaga, snap peas, spinach, summer squash, Swiss chard, turnips, and zucchini. We feasted from our garden all summer and fall. As the snow is about to fly, we have a 13 cubic foot freezer full of broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, snap peas and squash. In our root cellar – our cool damp garage – are burlap bags of potatoes and buckets of carrots, parsnips, and rutabagas packed in damp wood shavings.
Of all our plantings, only green beans were a bust. Germination failure. I don’t know why. I thought the brussels sprouts would be bust #2. We had lots of leaves, but only pea-sized sprouts. But I’ve delayed garden cleanup, and we’ve had a warmer than normal October. Some of the sprouts are now marble sized, so it looks like we are probably going to get a few! I say probably only because I want to let them go a little longer, but that has some risks. Last week a young bull moose apparently learned that he could take out our two strands of electric fence wire with his newly grown antlers and not get shocked. At least he helped a little with the garden cleanup. But he left no fertilizer. We put our young chickens out in the garden after harvest to turn the soil and provide some fertilizer; they’re good soil managers. As Mather’s chickens say, “Sometimes the good stuff is buried where you can’t see it.”
With two growing seasons now under our belts, we also now have some feel for how we should alter quantities to be planted next year. We probably overachieved in the turnip/rutabaga department, and maybe also with 85 pounds of potatoes! We’ll see how we feel about them in the spring after countless meals this winter. We will definitely plant more snap peas, collards, and other greens that freeze well next year. Probably more broccoli, but of all the things we grew, broccoli seems to have the most plant for the least harvest.
Vegetables need the sun. When we decided to greatly expand our garden, we faced a dilemma. Our lot is 90 percent undisturbed forest and we love the trees. The solution: garden the open ten percent, even if that ten percent happens to be the front yard. So much to the dismay of one of our neighbors, our street-side front yard is a vegetable garden. We think it’s quite pretty. Maybe all those folks we see slowly drive by our house all summer think so too.
Our native soil is a challenge. It’s a cold mineral sandy-clay mix. Our goal is to get to no-till gardening, but we’re not there yet. For the past two years we’ve tilled in many cubic yards of local organic compost, composted cow manure, and partly composed leaf mulch just before planting. Each year the soil seems richer and lighter. We plant seeds or starts in hoed up single-row raised beds. It improves soil warming. We leave the soil bare for the first few weeks after planting to maximize solar heat gain. But once the weeds start to appear, we weed well once and then apply a 1” layer of leaf mulch. This mulch is ground up birch leaves that we collect from our neighbors each fall. Some of them think we’re crazy, taking their trash. But this finely ground leaf mulch holds moisture, greatly reduces weeds, and eventually adds both nutrients and organic mater to our mineral soils. Some people swear by plastic for soil warming, moisture retention, and weed control. We can’t do it. We’ll stick with the brown gold.
I know several other successful organic gardeners, and they generally agree that successful vegetable gardening, year after year, requires greater nutrient inputs than that gained by just adding organic materials to your soils. You can find organic fertilizers at both big box and local garden stores. This season we found a great source of local organic fertilizer – fish bone meal made from salmon fish waste. While it can’t be certified as organic (who knows where those salmon have been…), it’s a rich, if fragrant, 5-5-1 fertilizer. To bump up the potassium, we supplement it with ashes from our wood stove. Our plants seemed to thrive this summer despite it being unfairly cloudy, cool, and wet. We just ordered a soil test so we can fine-tune our fertility management next year.
A good gardener blends tried-and-true with things anew. Already the subject of an earlier post, we put up a greenhouse last year to extend our growing season. We had some big successes – like fresh lettuce and other greens in May. However, mid-summer we switched to tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers. All produced, but none at the levels we would have hoped or expected. We’ll try doing things differently next year. Two other fun experiments were the potato barrel and growing lettuce and other greens under LED lights. The jury is still somewhat out on both of these experiments.
Feeding oneself isn’t just about growing or catching one’s food. You can also eat better, with few if any pesticides or preservatives, by making some of your basic foods from raw ingredients. During the last year or two, we’ve made some real strides in this area. We make almost all of our own bread. And yes, I often cheat with a bread machine. Mary is more of a purist. Stating the obvious, the other basic food group is beer! It’s a rare day when I don’t have something bubbling in the guest room closet.
Our local grocery stores stock a variety of yogurts produced in the Pacific Northwest. We decided we wanted local. We now make our own yogurt using low-fat milk from the nearby Matanuska Dairy and our slow cooker. And granola? We love what one of our local bread stores makes, but we’ve recently found several make-your-own recipes that we like even more. Last week a local farmer promised Alaska-grown oats on Craigslist. A hand-mill may be in our future!
Producing your own food can be fun, incredibly rewarding, and a great adventure. At times it can be physically demanding and a little tedious. At other times the process is intellectually challenging. It takes time. Make some. Don’t wait for boredom, food lines, or ill-health to get you moving. As Pollan says, “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.” Read books. Search the web blogs. Learn from friends. Experiment. Get your hands dirty. These are all good things.