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Our Tastes Are Simple. . .
(Part One)

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The following is the original on which my first article for Mother Earth News was based—“Our 21st Century Homestead”(the “Firsthand Report” in the December/January 2007 issue). It is an overview of our homesteading efforts and results here at Boxwood over the years. ~Harvey

Ellen and I met at a Zen monastery in the Catskill Mountains of New York state. The initial spark of interest flared into true love when we discovered a mutual passion for—compost.

That statement is not as silly is it probably sounds. We had both left failed marriages behind, and were pessimistic about ever finding love, much less marriage, again. But what better metaphor than compost—for renewal, for changing what is past and no longer usable—into something new, vital, powerfully fecund?

Dreaming of finding a place where we could compost, garden, and make a new life, we married and found our bit of Eden: two and a half acres of pretty good dirt in a crossroads rural village in northern Virginia, within sight of the Blue Ridge to the west. The house—originally a two-room log cabin on two levels—had grown in stages over two centuries. Keeping alive the tradition, we have made our own major addition to the house on the second level. We call our homestead ``Boxwood,'' after the large rectangle of mature boxwood gracing the front of the property, giving privacy from the road, planted close to a century ago.

Garden

The garden served as our trainer wheels in learning to produce more of our own food. The first challenge was our native clay soil—something a potter could work when wet, and a mason when dry, but hard to coax plants to grow in. What a revelation to learn, with sufficient study and effort over the years, that clay is actually among the most fertile of all soil types—given the alchemy necessary to transform its recalcitrant physical properties. We found that liming our soil helped to loosen it. (Lime causes the almost microscopic clay particles to “flocculate” or cling together in clumps, in effect creating a looser, larger-particle soil.) We found especially that the key to success in clay (as indeed in any soil type) is the addition of massive quantities of organic matter—as much as we can manage, from every available source and strategy, in every season. Over the years our intractable clay has mellowed in the oldest garden beds into a deep, friable loam.

Soil-compare

Progress

We have made and turned our share of compost heaps, recycling every last bit of organic refuse and hauling in “pony poop” (horse manure from a neighbor who breeds and boards horses) to “fire” the heaps. But we have sought less labor-intensive alternatives to the compost heap as well. I plant cover crops every chance I get, and use “chicken power” to till them in, in lieu of a power tiller. Last year, I expanded an experimental vermicomposting bin into close to 300 square feet of bins, and plan to use earthworm castings as a major part of our garden fertility program.

Our goal in garden production has always been to eat fresh, twelve months of the year. We do little home processing (a little freezing, almost no canning), relying instead on crops (winter squash, potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, cabbages, etc.) that store naturally.

Fertility patches

Comfrey

Comfrey

Seeking greater dependence on our own resources, I am planting “fertility patches” dedicated solely to growing fertility for use in mulches, compost heaps, and elsewhere. One of the best plants for a fertility patch is comfrey. Not only is comfrey high in nitrogen (as high as in horse manure), it is a “dynamic accumulator”—that is, its roots reach 8 to 10 feet into the deep subsoil, “mining” it of minerals and making them available to more shallow-rooted crops. Along the borders of the property, of the garden, of perennial plantings, and most especially under the fruit trees in the orchard—I see more and more opportunities for planting this valuable garden ally.

Poultry

Since our first summer here, we have maintained a large mixed flock of poultry—chickens of many breeds, ducks, geese, and a few guineas. Like many keepers of poultry, we started out with the conventional small coop with a static chicken run. Early on we concluded that that model is problematic for the birds’ health, and we now keep all the birds on pasture through the entire green season. (They are confined to a large poultry house, on deep litter, over the winter, with five square feet per bird.)

Our poultry are a key part of our domestic economy. We produce all the eggs and dressed poultry we eat, year-round (and we eat a lot of both). Ellen renders the duck and goose fat, to yeild one of the highest quality of all cooking fats. The old birds are culled to the stockpot for rich, nutritious broth—we have some every day.

Electronet-cuckoo-marans

Cuckoo Marans in Electronet

The usefulness of our flocks goes well beyond the table, however. Using electric net fencing, I put the chickens on the garden before the beginning of the season to “sanitize” the area of slugs. I often use the chickens—who love nothing so much as scratching—to till in established cover crops, again using electronet to confine them to their work. From time to time I even use their services to establish new garden ground. For example, last summer and fall I “parked” eighteen chickens on a plot I wanted to develop as additional garden. After five weeks or so, they had destroyed the existing pasture sod. Moving the chickens elsewhere, I sowed a mixed cover (peas, buckwheat, crucifers, etc.) and allowed it to grow five weeks, then re-introduced the birds. This time, the “tilling in” of the cover took a fraction of the first time—just a couple of weeks. I mulched the area heavily over winter, allowing the flock continued access to the mulch (though I could have planted an overwinter cover crop instead), and in the spring started planting the new area to vegetable crops.

I also use guineas, confined to the winter squash plot with electronet, for 100 percent organic, 100 percent effective control of squash bug.