The best time to have started a homestead was ten years ago, the next best time is now. This is what I would do if I were starting out homesteading now.
Animals for food and fertility
Look at what resources are around you and find the right animal to make the most of what is growing where you live. If you’re starting with lots of pasture, cows and sheep are good choices. If you’re in a small backyard, meat rabbits are a good option. If you have access to trees and scrub, goats make sense. Chickens and ducks are great for eating wasted food and scavenging for insects and seeds around the garden and can fit in anywhere. Even if you have to buy in food for your animals at first, in my experience it is always worth it, because not only do they give you better meat, dairy, and eggs than anything from a shop (and a reliable supply of it in these times), they also give manure to fertilise the garden.
I wish I had put more effort into this earlier. Even if you intend to have a big berry patch or orchard one day but it’s not a priority for now, it’s worth having some plants, as you can propagate new plants from these later on and get experience with growing them. In these uncertain times it’s hard to say whether fruit trees and berry plants will be easy to find in the future so it’s worth having some to begin with. Some of these plants can take several years to start bearing (although berries are very fast), so if you plant these early on your homestead, you will be harvesting them earlier and will thank yourself later on.
Grow and eat what grows well for you
Find an online gardening calendar for your local area and plant your crops at the right times. Experiment with growing a bit of everything, and then observe what grows best at different times of the year. I am pretty hopeless at growing cabbages (but every year I still try), but turnips and daikon radish grow easily here, so I plant lots of those and use these as I would use cabbages in cooking and fermenting.
Focus on staple foods
Find a combination of calorie-dense and nutrient dense foods that grow well for you. Calorie dense foods are those that contain lots of energy for their weight – potatoes, pumpkin/winter squash, swede/rutabaga, carrots, parsnips, beetroots, and other root vegetables.
Nutrient-dense foods are those that contain lots of vitamins and minerals for their weight, animal fats and leafy greens are good examples of this. These nutrient dense foods complement the calorie dense foods to form a complete diet – many meals are combinations of these two foods – baked potatoes with sour cream, root vegetables roasted in tallow, bread with butter, rice with bacon, and many more examples.
On my homestead, our staple calorie dense staple crops are potatoes, swede/rutabaga, turnip, parsnips, and carrots. Our nutrient dense staple crops are goats milk, goats cheese, eggs, and kale. I grow many more foods than these, but no matter what happens, we can survive on these foods alone, so I grow them in abundance.
Meeting water and energy needs
Ideally, a homestead should be able to meet its own needs for water, electricity, and cooking fuel. Finding a homestead with established firewood trees, or planting your own can be a big priority in cold climates. If you need to irrigate in summer, set up systems to catch water when there is rain, such as ponds and rainwater tanks. For electricity, it can first make sense to reduce the need for it as much as possible, and then to design a system to meet those reduced needs.
When growing garlic, the flower stalks (also called garlic scapes) are removed soon after they appear, to direct the plant’s energy towards growing a bigger bulb. These garlic scrapes are really tasty, and I use them in any recipe that normally calls for garlic. They can also be pickled or fermented to preserve them for later.
This recipe uses the ‘hot jar, hot lid, upside down’ method that is used in many parts of Europe and Australia. If you live at a high elevation or strictly follow USDA methods, then you would water bath can or pressure can this instead.
2 parts vinegar***
1 part water***
salt, to taste
garlic scapes, as many as you want
Carefully sterilise some jars with boiling water or in a low oven. Keep them hot in the oven while you do everything else. Sterilise lids in boiling water.
Heat the vinegar, water and salt until boiling. Mix through the garlic scrapes and allow to boil for another minute or two.
Quickly transfer the hot garlic scapes and hot pickling liquid to the hot jars. Seal in the usual way, then turn your jars upside down for two minutes before putting the right way up again. Alternatively, water bath can your jars for 10 minutes.
These will store for a year or more at room temperature.
***the amount to use is all relative to how much garlic you are preserving – if you’re preserving just one pint jar of them, then 300ml vinegar (1 1/4 cups) to 150ml (2/3 cup) water would be the right amount to use, if you’re preserving a lot of garlic at once, just scale this up or down, and feel free to use this pickling liquid for other vegetables too.
Quinces are an easily-grown fruit that’s often ignored in modern diets. Not many people know how to properly prepare them, and they can seem a bit fiddly and slow to cook compared to other fruits.
I think it’s definitely worth learning to prepare and cook quince – they are like no other fruit, and there’s something deeply warming about the way they taste on a cold autumn day.
My favourite way to cook them is to slowly simmer them in a spiced syrup. I make a large batch, we either eat them over the course of a few days, or water bath can them to store for later.
I also enjoy making quince jam – delicious on top of toast, porridge, and rice pudding. I’ll also share the recipe for this here.
How to find quinces
If you live anywhere where apples and pears grow, you can probably find quinces. They are part of the pome fruit family, related to apples and pears. Dwarf pear trees for home gardens are actually grafted onto quince rootstock, as they are so closely related.
Quinces are ready for a brief season in mid to late autumn. There are several different varieties, and they’re usually ripe in the second and third months of autumn. Ripe quinces have yellow skin and pale flesh, which turns red or pink when cooked.
Quince can be hard to find in shops. Look for roadside fruit stands, and buckets out the front of houses with fruit trees.
How to prepare quince
Get a very big bowl or pot and put 4 litres (1 gallon) of water in it, along with 2 tablespoons cider vinegar and a teaspoon of salt. This acid water will help prevent the quinces from browning while you’re cutting up more of them.
Peel each quince and put in the acid water. Once they’re all peeled, cut the top off each one, then cut each one in half, and then in half again, to form four wedges.
Now it’s time to remove the cores. Begin by using the knife right at the edge of the quince quarter, starting at the top, where the stem was. As you work your way downwards, allow the knife to follow the grain of the quince, so that you’re skimming along as close to the gritty and tough core as possible – this is something that is picked up over time. If you get a bit of gritty core in with the quinces, it’s not the end of the world, if you skim off too much, then that’s just some extra scraps for the goats and not for you.
After coring, put the quince pieces back in the acid water again and leave them until you’re ready to cook. Peel and core the rest of the quinces and add them back to the acid water too.
How to cook quince in spiced syrup
In a 5 litre (5 quart) pot, prepare a syrup for poaching with 2 1/2 litres (10 cups) water, 800g coconut sugar (4 1/2 cups) or honey (2 1/3 cups), and some optional spices – I like to add 10 smashed cardamon pods, 1 cinnamon stick, and 2 star anise. Bring to a simmer on the stove and keep warm. These quantities will give enough syrup to cook between 4 and 5 kilograms (9 to 11 pounds) of quince.
Once all the quince is prepared, put them in the hot poaching liquid, adding more water and honey if it needs it. Quinces shrink a little while they’re poaching, so it’s fine to have them fit quite snugly together, but there should still be some extra syrup at first, and any extra can be used for poaching another batch of quinces, or making baked syrup dumplings, so it’s better to have too much syrup rather than not enough.
Gently simmer over a medium-low heat for at least forty minutes, or up to a few hours if the heat is low enough. Quinces are best when they’re cooked slowly. I prefer to cook mine in the oven, as it’s a more gentle all-over heat, rather than the harsh heat that sometimes happens on top of my stove, but you can cook on a stovetop too if you keep the heat very low.
When cooked, the quinces will be soft, and will have changed colour. They can fall apart quite easily, so handle them gently.
Now you have a big pot full of cooked quince, ready to serve as a dessert, or add to cakes and pies. Quince in syrup can keep in the larder with the lid on for around a week, or you can put the quinces and syrup into preserving jars, seal in the usual way, and process in a boiling water bath for 40 minutes.
How to make quince jam
Quince makes a delicious jam, perfect with porridge, rice pudding, scones, pancakes, or toast.
2kg (5 pounds) quinces
1 litre (quart) to 1.5 litres (1.5 quarts) water
1.2kg (2.6 pounds) honey
If you don’t usually make jams, see my blog post here or my book for in depth information about the process.
Prepare quinces in the usual way by following the instructions above. Cut into very small pieces (or use a grater).
Heat 1 litre (1 quart) water in a large heavy-bottomed pot until boiling. Add the quince and stir.
Cook until the quince is very soft and can easily be mashed with a wooden spoon. As the quince cooks, it should fluff up a little and absorb water, so add water, a small amount at a time if it is needed, to form a thick sauce, keeping in mind that the honey will water it down further.
Add the honey, bring back to the boil, and continue to cook, uncovered, stirring every so often, until it passes the “plate test” (see my jam post or book for more on that)
Put your jam in jars in the usual way, Australian hot jar/hot lid/upside down works for this if this is what you normally use, or can in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.
How to store quince
Quince can be stored for two or three months by selecting the very best, unbruised, undamaged quinces and placing them in layers in a 5 gallon bucket, with each quince surrounded by dry autumn leaves. Store in a cool place, such as an unheated room, a root cellar, or outdoors in the shade.
Quince jam and bottled quinces in spiced syrup will store for one year in a cool, dry place.
Here are my favourite tools for serious self reliant food gardening, with some notes about what I use them for and what to look for. These garden tools are suited to tall people and people with bad backs, and are tough enough to work on compacted soil and clearing scrubland.
My four favourite tools
A broadfork gently aerates soil without inverting it, giving some oxygen (but not too much) to the soil life to help it thrive. A broadfork can be used without bending your back – just place it on the soil, put your full weight on it and jump or stomp on it, wiggle it around, and then lift it up with your arms. Broadforks can be quite heavy, so having some arm strength is recommended. If you use animal tractor systems on your garden or if your soil is compacted from anything else I’d consider a broadfork to be a high priority for self sufficient gardening, it lets the right amount of air into the soil and provides channels for roots to go deeper. I use my broadfork for new plantings of annuals and perennials, and it can also be used to aerate pastureland for optimum soil health and grass growth.
I use the 5 tine broad fork from F D Ryan in Australia, in the USA it looks like the Meadow Creature is similar. Some broadforks have wooden handles, and on compacted soil I can imagine a lot of stress being placed on where the wood joins the metal, so they may not last long, so I’d recommend choosing an all-metal fork that is built to last.
This is used for chopping up weeds and green manures before and during the growing season and roughly preparing garden beds for planting.
The peasant hoe looks like the picture below. Mine is 10cm (4”) wide.
For anyone with a bad back, or who is taller than average, it is definitely worth seeking out a hoe with a long handle, at least 150cm (5 feet) long. I’d recommend getting one that is strong, but lightweight enough to handle long gardening sessions without fatigue. If possible, have a look at your hoe at the garden centre to see how the weight feels to you – if it feels awkwardly balanced in your arms, it’s not worth getting, if you can’t hold it with a straight back, look for one with a longer handle.
I use a generic rake that the previous owners left on our property, it has a wooden handle and metal head and does the job. This is used for preparing bed surfaces, making small trenches in rough ground and mulch for adding compost and direct seeding, making and covering small furrows for direct seeding, and for giving slight compaction to bed surfaces when needed by tapping the surface of the bed. For people growing on standard 75cm market garden beds, a 75cm bed preparation rake would save some time.
Long-handled pointy-ended spade
A long handled spade allows you to work without bending your back. I use one for creating trenches for potatoes, planting trees and shrubs, shaping garden beds, shovelling compost, and basically anything you’d normally use a spade or shovel for.
The one I use is called the “plumbers shovel” from Cyclone. The handle is around 150cm (5 feet) long. Similar shovels can be found from other tool places. If you are tall, have a bad back, or want to do a lot of gardening without aches and pains, look for one with a long handle.
We use both of these on our homestead for moving compost, mulch, and other bits and pieces around. The wheelbarrow is easier to manoeuvre around thin, winding pathways and bringing stuff downhill. The cart is easier to use on wide pathways, and for bringing stuff uphill.
I went without one of these for the first few years gardening here, using large flexible tubs to drag stuff around instead, so this is not an essential gardening tool, it just makes moving stuff around slightly easier.
I do a lot of direct seeding and not much transplanting, and using a precision seeder has helped me to plant things evenly and get better germination rates and less thinning. In rough ground and in mulch, I make a small trench in the soil and fill the trench with a small amount of compost to help the seeder get through – I used to do this for getting small seeds to come up before I had the seeder. I use the Earthway, which allows me to seed many different types of seeds, one row at a time. For sowing lots of carrots and salad greens, market gardeners often use a 6 row seeder, which is more expensive than the single row seeder, but saves time. The single row seeder is still a lot faster than seeding by hand – I can just quickly walk over a row in a matter of seconds, and it’s all buried at the right depth, spaced somewhat evenly, and covered over with just the right amount of compaction by the seeder.
A precision seeder is one of those tools I wouldn’t recommend getting right away. I gardened for many years without one, and have tried gardening with mostly transplants, gardening with mostly direct seedling, broadcast-seeding, carefully sprinkling seed in rows, and many variations. Many people garden with mostly transplants/plant starts and would not get much use out of this tool, but if you have been gardening for many years, grow a lot of annual food crops, prefer not to grow from transplants, and have trouble getting seeds to come up evenly, this might be a tool to look into.
Precision seeders like the ground to be flat and even, so some preparation is needed. On rough ground and in chicken tractored mulch, I make small trenches, and then fill the trenches in with a couple of spadefuls of compost, using the rake or hoe to flatten out the compost and compact it slightly. I used to do this for direct seeding small seeds without the seeder, instead making furrows with the rake, sprinkling the seed in, and using the rake to cover it.
Strong hand trowel
For transplanting vegetable seedlings, small perennials, harvesting roots, and working with pot plants, it’s worth having a strong hand trowel – weak and flimsy ones can bend or break on anything but the softest soil.
A rice knife or Japanese rice sickle is a serrated blade that can be useful for ‘chop and drop’ of non-woody plants, and for harvesting grain.
Going beyond organicgardening
If you’d like to learn more about growing all your food garden fertility on your own land with no inputs, and lots more information to help you become a better organic gardener, I’d recommend checking out this 30 hour master gardener video course with an organic permaculture focus, currently on Kickstarter here.
In A Year in an Off-Grid Kitchen I included recipes for five of my favourite ways to preserve tomatoes with water bath canning – as tomato passata, tomatoes in brine, pizza sauce, salsa, and tomato relish. I’ve recently tried a couple of different methods that I’d like to share here.
I’ve been intrigued about fermenting tomatoes for a while, ever since reading Shannon Stonger’s Traditionally Fermented Foods. it seems like such a simple and low energy way to preserve tomatoes, and perfect for preserving the garden harvest as it makes it to the kitchen, because you don’t need a huge amount of tomatoes to justify boiling up the canner, you can just preserve one jar at a time. Tomato season is a busy time on the homestead, and having a way to just quickly preserve things without much fuss is very welcome!
I tested this recipe out, left them alone for nearly a year, and they were still good to eat after that long. Tomatoes are a bit naughty in the jar and have a habit of rising above the fermenting weight (which is why in the photo you can see lots of tomatoes trying to jump out of the jar!), even then in my Fido jar, they were still really good to eat. I definitely recommend checking out Shannon’s fermenting book for more tasty fermenting recipes.
How to ferment tomatoes:
Pack whole, firm tomatoes up to the ‘shoulders’ of a fermenting jar – I use Fido jars, but mason jars can work too if you remember to ‘burp’ them once a day for the first week or two, or until the bubbling stops.
Add around 3 tablespoons unrefined salt, plus an optional tablespoon of fresh whey or sauerkraut juice for every litre (quart) jar.
Top with non-chlorinated water to above the level of the tomatoes
Weigh the tomatoes down with a fermenting weight, or with a cabbage leaf weighed down with a boiled rock or other heat-sterilised heavy thing.
Put the lid on and leave it at around 23ºC (73ºF) for a week or two, or until the bubbling dies down, then move to root cellar, larder, or fridge conditions of around 15ºC (59ºF) or lower where they will store for up to a year.
Use these fermented tomatoes anywhere that you’d normally add tomatoes – salads, soups, stews, sauces, and more. This is a great low energy way to preserve tomatoes.
One of my favourite tomato varieties to grow is Principe Borghese, In my garden, this is a resilient variety that fruits very early, produces an abundance of tasty red cherry tomatoes that are great either raw or cooked, and it seems pretty resistant to pests. Last tomato season here was rainier and colder than usual, and I grew both this and “Gold Nugget” which is the earliest fruiting tomato that I know of, and Principe Borghese was the first to have ripe fruit, and was very plentiful. It’s also grown well for me in dry warm summers.
Principe Borghese is well-known as a good tomato for drying, but I’ve never grown it for that reason, just for all the reasons above. Last season I experimented with drying them in the wood stove.
How to dry tomatoes:
Slice them in half. Place them cut-side up on a baking sheet. Put them in a very low oven with the door ajar – I dried mine at the bottom of the top oven of the wood stove as it died down for the night, and also in the warming oven all day. Once the tomatoes have mostly dried out on that side, flip them over and dry the other side.
Once the tomatoes are fully dry, they will be crispy and full of flavour.
Tomatoes can also be dried in a solar dehydrator in a similar way – just dry cut-side up until that side is almost dry, then flip over and dry until crisp.
Tomatoes with more flesh and less juice and seeds, such as Amish Paste, Roma, Principe Borghese, and other sauce-type tomatoes are the best choices for drying, but any tomato can be dried in this way.
Store dried tomatoes an airtight container such as a glass jar with lid. If kept dry, they will keep well for a year or more.
Dried tomatoes are great smashed up and sprinkled on salads, on top of pizza, or added to stews, soups, sauces, and more.
Some of my friends and readers are ordering seeds at the moment, so I thought I’d share some of my favourite varieties of greens to grow. The varieties below are all fairly easy to find at the moment from online seed sellers, and all are open pollinated, so if you end up liking them as much as I do, you can save seeds from them too.
Why grow greens?
Greens yield a lot of nutrition in a small amount of space, and take a short time to yield.
Greens can be a good staple food in a survival diet – just have some calories from stored grains or homegrown potatoes, a source of fat and protein such as bacon or goats milk, and you basically have all that you need.
To make it on to my list, all of these greens have to be easy to grow, produce some food even on poor soil, not bolt to seed right away, and be easy to prepare and cook.
All of these greens will produce in soil that is not that great, but for larger, tastier leaves I try to add some organic matter in the form of compost or manure, along with minerals to adjust the soil pH when needed. Keeping them watered in dry weather will also help.
My favourite greens
Green wave mustard greens – the earliest green
These are the earliest cooking green to be ready. I direct sow mustard greens as early as possible, and they start growing in the earliest days of spring, with small leaves ready to pick in a few weeks. As the season progresses, they have larger leaves that are easier to harvest and just as tasty as the small leaves. If you want your greens ready even earlier, you could probably start the seeds in soil blocks or trays indoors and then transplant them.
Mustard greens bolt towards the end of spring, but not before producing many tasty and nutritious meals. The flowerheads can be cooked like tiny broccoli.
My main focus for these greens is as an early spring crop, but they can also be sowed towards the end of summer, to grow quickly and provide a crop in autumn, as they are ready around 6 weeks after sowing in warm weather.
For the spring crop, I usually sow at least 25 metres (80 feet) of row to feed our family of eight.
Mustard greens have a strong bite to them when raw, and almost all wildlife ignore them. As a cooking green, just leave them whole, or chop up, there’s no need to remove the stems. Either, boil, steam, or stir fry. My favourite use for these is to first fry up bacon, stir fry the greens in the bacon fat, and then stir the crispy bacon back in. They are also good in many soups, stews, and stir fries, or just cooked like spinach as a side vegetable to any meal.
Red Russian kale – all-round staple
I start this any time from the earliest days of spring through to the middle of summer. The smallest leaves are good to add to springtime salads, and by the later days of spring the leaves are getting large and ready to use in all kinds of cooked dishes.
Kale can either be direct sown, or started in trays or soil blocks. Kale self seeded really well for me last year, so that this year I had many tiny seedlings popping up around the garden, ready to be grown to full size or transplanted.
The standard advice where I live (Tasmania, cold zone 8b) is to start kale off after the summer solstice, and to use it as an autumn/winter crop, but I find that the weather in spring grows these much better than the dry days of summer, so I sow most of mine in spring, and it just keeps growing through the summer, into autumn and winter.
If you don’t have much irrigation water, Red Russian kale is perfect to grow if planted when rains are naturally falling in spring – the roots sink right down, and it survives through the summer, looking a little sad in the driest times, but then picking up again in autumn when the rains come.
I am trying to put kale pretty much everywhere in the garden – in the garden beds, as well as under fruit trees and in far-off corners. It is such a great staple green for us. As a minimum, I’d probably want to grow around 40 metres (130 feet) of row for our family, and I even feel as though this is not enough… I don’t think it’s possible to have too much kale growing!
Kale stands through the frost right through the winter here, it will bolt to seed the following spring. The flowerheads can be used like broccoli, and the tiny leaves on the towering plants can be used in salads or cooked. The yellow flowers can be eaten in salad, or let them develop into seed for planting.
Red Russian kale is tender enough to use in salads if the stems are removed. My main use for it is as a cooking green, where the stems can be left on, or taken off. The leaves can be cooked whole, or chopped up. I serve it in the same ways as I would for mustard greens, above, but it also can be made into crispy kale ‘chips’ by coating it in some fat and salt, and then baking it at around 180ºC (350ºF) in a single layer until crisp (around 10-15 minutes) – my easy way of doing this is to add it to the vegetables towards the end of a roast, stir it through to coat in the fat and salt from the vegetables, then move to the top of the roast pan to crisp up.
Tokyo Bekana – another adaptable staple green
Tokyo Bekana is a kind of loose-leaf Chinese cabbage. This can be planted any time from spring through to early autumn. Early spring plantings tend to bolt fairly quickly once it’s ready to eat, so it’s best to plant this in succession, with several plantings over the season.
I’d usually plant around 12 metres (40 feet) of row for every succession planting, so maybe around 36 to 48 metres (120-160 feet) or more over the whole season. It’s a fast-growing green in the summer (ready in around 6 weeks after sowing) and can be snuck in as a ‘catch crop’ every time there’s a bit of space in the garden.
The leaves of Tokyo Bekana are mild enough to use as a lettuce substitute in salads, and they can also be fermented, or cooked in any of the ways I cook mustard greens. Just keep the leaves whole, or chop them up, no need to remove stems.
Freckles – the lazy gardener’s lettuce
After trying many different lettuce varieties over the years, if I had to choose from only one to plant from now onwards, I would choose freckles, also known as “flashy trouts back” after it’s beautiful spotted leaves.
Freckles grows beautifully either direct sown or started in trays. I’ve even transplanted trays that have been left unplanted much longer than ideal, and it’s still grown well.
In summers when I haven’t had much irrigation water, once established, freckles has handled the lack of water better than other lettuces, and hasn’t bolted or gone bitter in the heat. Areas that have afternoon shade are the best for growing lettuce in summer.
Freckles grows quickly and doesn’t seem to be bothered much by slugs and snails.
The taste of freckles is a mixture of red and green lettuce taste – like having a good mixed salad but with only one kind of lettuce to harvest.
Like any lettuce, freckles is best grown in succession, as lettuces do bolt to seed eventually (freckles seems a bit slower to bolt than others though), so make a new planting of it every month in between early spring and early autumn and you’ll never run out of lettuce.
I use lettuce a lot in polycultures and in between larger plants such as cabbage, zucchini, and kale, where it seems to thrive below the taller plants while not harming anything.
Dandelion and other edible weeds
I like to encourage my favourite edible weeds at the edges of my garden, under fruit trees, and pretty much everywhere. For dandelions, I taste the leaves in spring and choose the ones with the biggest, tastiest leaves, I don’t overharvest from these ones, I keep an eye on them, and once they go to seed I take their wishing flower/fairy clock seedhead and blow or sprinkle the seeds in areas where they are most wanted.
Dandelions have a deep taproot which brings up nutrients from deep in the soil, not competing with common garden vegetables, and excellent to have around fruit trees and pastures.
I prefer dandelions as a cooked green, but the mild-tasting ones also go well raw in salads or pesto in spring.
Mallow is a good cooking green, the leaves can be a bit annoying to harvest compared to giant kale leaves, but it’s worth having around.
Sow thistle is a bit like spinach. My children love it. The leaves are a reasonable size, and it can be used either raw or cooked.
Wild rocket seems to pop up every year once established, the leaves are quite small but it has a lovely taste and is so easy to grow.
For more recipes and ideas for cooking with homegrown greens, see my book A Year in an Off-Grid Kitchen
I’ve been quiet on this blog for the past few months, because I’ve been working on something very big…
I’ve been busy creating a cookbook that teaches the kitchen skills that are most important on a homestead, as well as a huge amount of adaptable everyday homestead recipes.
When the the panic buying, empty shelves, and restrictive rations hit earlier this year, it was not a problem for my family, because we knew these skills, and knew how to feed ourselves without the supermarket system. With the help of this book, you can learn these skills too.
I’ve created a Kickstarter in order to pre-sell enough copies to cover the printing costs. Running a Kickstarter means we can cut out the middleman, so I’m able to offer you a better price than the future retail one, while also being able to offer extra ebooks and other goodies.
Recently planted circular garden bed, and homemade geodesic chook dome
I first found out about this way of mandala gardening from Linda Woodrow’s “The Permaculture Home Garden”. She provides a design for a complete system that involves fruit trees, wild animal habitat, annual vegetable beds, and chook fodder plantings, with chickens being rotated around in a homemade chook dome. It all fits together so beautifully, with each element benefiting another, and it inspires me to grow food in this way.
I am in a colder climate (zone 8b/9a) with less sun in winter, with limited flat land, and am working on my own way of doing this that’s suited to my land and climate. Linda Woodrow doesn’t provide much information about which chook fodder perennials to grow in colder climates so I’ve just been using the entire circular bed to grow annual vegetables at this stage, usually for pumpkin, sunflower, grains, or potatoes. I would like to try out growing some chicken fodder plants but am not sure how the ones most suited to my climate (siberian pea tree, tagasaste) would go with being kept as a small shrub rather than tree. The chook fodder perennials fix nitrogen, produce mulch, feed the soil, and provide habitat for insect predators and pollinators.
One thing I like a lot about this system is if life gets busy and things get unharvested or weeds get out of hand, I just move the chickens on to that bed, and the the bolted and weedy plants turn into chook food and mulch. After two weeks the chickens have left me with a mulched, fertilised, weed-free bed, with also some tasty eggs to eat – it is almost too easy, and I’m thinking of terracing some of my land to fit in more chook dome spots for this reason.
A polyculture garden bed, with zucchini, beans, Asian greens, tomatoes, cucumber, and more around the edges, and pumpkin, corn, and sunflower in the middle
The soil has improved a lot in the spots where the chook domes have been. It’s been really inspiring to see it turn from a boring compacted lawn into a thriving garden that is feeding us and the chickens.
Every time the chook dome is moved, it gives a doable piece of garden to get planted. The mulch is often moved to one side of the bed by the chickens, so I first rake that out over the whole bed, and then I broadfork it. On a new bed over compacted soil I will usually broadfork it in two or four separate sessions, but once the soil underneath is getting a nicer structure, I can easily broadfork the entire bed at once.
Once the bed is broadforked, I use a hoe to create small pockets and lines in the mulch for planting. I fill these small pockets up with compost and plant them with seedlings or seeds. The spacing between the pockets will depend on each individual plant, I try to mix the plants up so that I don’t have blocks of a single plant, and this means the spacing can be very close because different plants are sending roots to different places. I can also plant with succession in mind, so that I can grow fast-growing Asian greens and lettuces right next to small seedlings of zucchini and tomatoes, and once the zucchini and tomatoes are starting to take over, the greens are ready to harvest, and I’ve made use of space that is often wasted.
One challenge I have experienced has been with my climate – it’s best if the chooks are moved every two weeks, but in winter there’s not much that can be planted once they have been moved, and in late spring there is so much to plant that it doesn’t feel like they can be moved quickly enough sometimes. One thing that’s happened a couple of times has been when I’ve moved the dome, not gotten around to planting the previous bed, and then moved the chooks back on to the previous bed for a day to get rid of the weeds before moving them on to a third bed – this way I end up with two beds ready to plant at the same time. A winter solution is to move the chickens into a greenhouse over the winter, or in mild climates to keep them in one spot with lots of mulch added.
The kind of tarp I use on top of the dome helps a lot with chicken comfort in extremes of weather – one side is silver and reflects heat, and the other side absorbs heat, so I have the silver side outside in summer, and inside in winter. In colder climates than mine this wouldn’t work, but I’ve tried it here and the chickens are happy.
The chickens can also help to make compost – just throw in way more mulch than you need, and anything else you want composted, and the chickens will scratch it up, and mix it with their manure, and once the chook dome is moved, you just need to shovel that out onto a spot in between the beds, water it, and it turns into compost.
With lots of mulch around there are usually slugs and snails – the chickens help to keep the population down, and the pond and rocks in Linda Woodrow’s design attract lizards that eat the snail eggs.
I am working on producing more of my own mulch for the chickens, from grains grown in the beds, as well as perennials grown around the edges of the garden. I’m also still figuring out the best plants and combinations of plants that thrive in this system in my climate.
Note: If you’d like to learn more about how and why I keep dairy goats, I’ve had a couple of guest posts published recently on Practical Self Reliance, and Nourishing Days. These blogs have a lot of other good stuff to read about too.
Liflin was born here, he’s the son of Snowy and Ned, and the cute baby goat you can see in my midsummer post. Last year we had high hopes for him, and he certainly tried his best, but he was probably too small or young to get our does pregnant.
This year he is bigger and stinkier, and there’s no mistaking that he is no longer a cute little goat kid, but a big stinky billy goat. I don’t find the smell that bad – there is something endearing about it, as I affectionately give him a scratch between the horns while calling him big stinky billy goat. Spending a lot of time with goats, I don’t really mind it, but when I first smelled a buck, it definitely was very strong!
Towards the end of April I noticed muddy hoof prints on Sunshine’s back. Soon after, other does began to go into heat, and all of a sudden it seems as though they were all covered with hoof prints.
These days Liflin is still stinky, and a bit frustrated, as none of the does are interested in him anymore. I hope it is for the right reason, and that we’ll see lots of babies and milk in the springtime.
I look for every sign of pregnancy, and am hopeful, but still nervous. Only two does are in milk now, and their supply has really slowed down. Geraldine will pick back up in springtime, whether she’s pregnant or not, but the others may not.
I dream of a summer and autumn ahead where I make one or two hard cheeses a week and store them away for the winter and spring. I dream of regularly making pizza from my own cheese, of having chévre for barter and gifts. I dream of my six does being in milk during the winter, and giving us enough milk to drink, and make yoghurt, and the odd batch of chévre. The thought of this abundance from our land is beautiful, but Liflin is untested, I don’t know whether it will happen or not…
I wonder when in homesteading things become ‘real’. I visit museums and historical sites about our pioneer ancestors and imagine what life was like for them – dropped off on our strange island with limited supplies, and no choice but to survive on the land and make the best of it that they could. There was no option of looking on Gumtree for another goat in milk, no option of buying someone else’s cheese, they had to make do with what they had.
I wonder if this was a source of worry for them, or if they just faced challenges, accepted their situation, and made the best of it, maybe drinking less milk some years, more milk other years, and finding other sources of food. It’s hard to know the answer to this. Everyone I speak to from older generations seems to avoid the idea of working to directly produce their own food as if it were a bad thing, while viewing a sedentary life in an office as an interchangable cog as something worthwhile to do in life. Yes, it can be hard to worry about the animals and our staple foods for the year ahead, but I find fulfilment in being connected to this.
For over two years I was deeply immersed in writing about goats. I dreamed of the goat book I wish I’d had when I first started, and began to create it. I wrote all about keeping dairy goats on a small scale, and making natural cheeses from their milk. Over 50,000 words later, with all kinds of unexpected surprises and struggles, I now hold the hardcover edition in my hand and know that it’s completed!
I didn’t do this alone, but with the help of many wonderful people that supported the book on Kickstarter. Thank you!
Since the book launch I have been putting a lot of creativity into writing the cookbook that’s been brewing in my mind for the past few years, and will still be a bit quiet on this blog, hopefully I will find some recipes to share with you all soon, and some baby goat photos in October.
I have also recently been a guest poster at Permablitz, writing about keeping dairy goats in suburbia, and I will be doing some more goat-related posts in the next few months.