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 up to that point (2007). ~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 as 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.
The garden served as our training 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.
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.
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.
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 yield 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.
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.
The acre or so of pasture on our property, initially a weed-grown nightmare, is now a priceless resource, providing our flocks food of a quality I couldn’t hope to match with anything purchased (green growing plants, wild seeds, animal foods such as earthworms and insects). The pasture is also fertility patch par excellence: I cut the grass with a scythe when it is lush and growing fast in the spring, and compost it or use it for mulch. (Long stem grass cut with a scythe is vastly superior for both uses to the finely chopped grass from a power mower.) The keys to pasture management for us are: grazing by the poultry flocks, mowing in summer to prevent too heavy a set of weed seeds, and overseeding with mixed grasses and clovers, either in fall or late winter/early spring (or both).
A top priority in our first year at Boxwood was the planting of apple and pear trees, and we’ve steadily added to the orchard over the years as various fruits have claimed our enthusiasm. We now grow apples (six varieties), pears (four), plums (three), cherry (four), Oriental persimmons (three), blueberries (nine), blackberries and raspberries (eight), plus paw paws and white mulberry. One of my greatest regrets is that I didn’t plant nut trees early on. I am finally correcting that error, having just planted eight filberts (hazelnuts). This year and next I will plant hickory and black walnut, as well as pecan, heartnut, chestnut, and Korean stone pine (a source of edible pine nuts).
For years we have grown shiitake mushrooms, whose cultivation is as easy as it is fun. I am starting to give mushrooms a much larger scope in the homestead. My next thinning of “weed trees” in our small woodlot will be done with the chain saw lubricated not with petroleum oil, but with vegetable oil carrying millions of spores of Pleurotus ostreatus (pearl oyster mushroom). Every cut of the saw will inoculate trunk and slash and stump, yielding—in due time, and with the blessing of the rains—delicious mushrooms for the table, and hastening the decomposition of the felled trees into forest-floor humus. Lepista nuda (blewits), Hypsizygus ulmarius (elm oyster), Stropharia rugoso-annulata (king or wine-cap Stropharia), Ganoderma lucidum (reishi)—we have just begun our use of these and other species to decompose “wastes” too often hauled to landfills, and for their yield of edible and medicinal mushrooms.
Last year we discovered the concept of the “forest garden,” and already have made a modest start at Boxwood. A natural forest typically consists of three layers: a canopy layer of taller trees that need the full light of the sun; a shrub layer that has evolved to thrive in the partial shade of the canopy; and a (mostly perennial) herbaceous layer that also does well in the shade of the other layers. With judicious species selection, we hope to assemble a forest garden more productive than the same ground would be if planted solely to garden or orchard or woodlot. Note that not all species are intended to produce food for us, the forest gardeners. Some serve to accumulate and conserve soil fertility (so that, once the forest garden is well established, additional inputs of fertility from the outside are not needed), while others serve as food and habitat for beneficial insects (which help keep insect threats to the forest garden in check).
As a first step, I have heavily mulched our orchard to kill the existing sod, and have begun interplanting the established fruit trees with filberts, gooseberries, currants, jujube, elderberry, and many other selections.
The lawn is too often a huge net loss of time and labor for the homesteader, producing nothing for all the effort expended. Last year we adopted two alternatives to the conventional lawn, reclaiming ours as a productive asset. Using electronet fencing, I began rotating our ducks and geese over five areas of lawn (now termed our “close-in pastures”). Both species are grazers, and turn all that lovely grass—otherwise just an onerous chore—into winter meals. I have also converted part of the former front lawn to a mini-forest garden.
Again, I laid down a heavy killing mulch in a generous arc around three established kaki (Asian) persimmons, then interplanted filberts, gooseberries, and currants. I love the change, if only because I no longer have to be so meticulous with the mower as I cut the lawn around the bases of the persimmons.
After our first homemade greenhouse (12×20 ft, based on ideas in Eliot Coleman’s Four-Season Harvest) succumbed to winter’s assaults, we upgraded six years ago to a 20×48 ft model, using a purchased kit. In it, we grow salads and cooking greens right through the dead of winter (Zone 6b). I also grow green forage (grain grasses and mixed crucifers) to cut for the poultry in the winter housing. I installed my expanded worm bins in the greenhouse, so the vermicomposting can continue uninterrupted through the winter. Last fall I installed a couple of pens for chickens in the north end of the greenhouse. During the winter, the pens housed a couple of flocks of about a dozen birds each. Though I have no way of measuring their effects, I believe their body heat helped moderate the temperature in the greenhouse overnight. Also, their exhalations boosted to some degree the carbon dioxide levels in the greenhouse, a benefit to the growing plants.
The View from Here
We are seeing a growing interest in the homesteading life, and we do what we can to encourage it. We serve as local chapter leaders for the Weston A. Price Foundation, and maintain a food resource list to help local consumers find small producers of high-quality food in our area. We are doing an increasing amount of public speaking, writing, and other forms of education on homesteading and food quality issues. I offer classes in starting and managing the homestead poultry flock and hands-on workshops in poultry butchering.
We offer our homestead as an inspiration to others who, for whatever reason, have concluded that a personal investment in homesteading skills is a wise investment indeed. Would-be homesteaders visit with increasing frequency to see our place and the methods we are using. The following are some of the key points we try to emphasize.
It’s a great way to live
Ellen and I choose to be more self-reliant through homesteading first and foremost because it’s a richly rewarding way of life—productive, challenging, and creative. It engages us in the dance of the seasons, and with the whole web of life. Homesteading is an active life, making good and all-around use of the body, supportive of the health of both body and mind.
It’s a great way to eat
Perhaps you’ve seen that T-shirt with the slogan: “My tastes are simple—I like the best.” That sums it up for Ellen and me. Not, however, with regard to car, home furnishings, stereo equipment, or the vast array of the latest toys—for such things our tastes are quite modest. But where food is concerned, second-best is never good enough. The story of our life at Boxwood has been the story of an increasing unwillingness to compromise on food quality, and an increasingly radical rejection of the mediocre food available in the industrial market.
Even the US Department of Agriculture—the foremost proponent of the superiority of the American way of diet—recognizes that the nutritional content of our food has been declining for decades. Industrialized food production has also meant the ultra-processing and insipidity of food; toxic residues; the shameful abuse of animals in high-confinement, high-stress systems of production; and the narrowing of the ingredients base to a few mass-produced, highly refined components. The result is food that, in our opinion, is not fit to eat. We are opting out of the industrial food market to the maximum extent possible. I estimate that 85 percent of the food on our table at this time is produced either in our backyard, or purchased face-to-face from local small farmers, personally known to us.
Food security starts in the backyard
The era of easy prosperity most of us grew up assuming almost as a natural right may soon come to an end. The house of cards we have thoughtlessly erected for ourselves—unsustainable levels of national and personal debt; human-influenced climate change; total dependence on cheap and abundant oil, natural gas, and other forms of energy, profligately used; destructive agriculture; exploding population levels—could come crashing down at any time. The economic crisis will be characterized perhaps most of all by the collapse of a complex, energy-intensive agricultural and food distribution system. Nothing makes more sense than to acquire the tools and learn the skills to produce more of our own food through our own efforts, and to seek out sources of high-quality food close to home.
A severe economic dislocation will also be an opportunity to be of service. The vast majority of our citizens have become completely divorced from the sources of their food, and from the life forces and the human resources required to bring it to their tables—they will be “clueless” when they have to turn to the backyard garden, chicken pen, and rabbit hutch for an increasing portion of their food. Those who have already climbed some of the necessary learning curves will be in a position to assist others in relearning lost skills.
My own preference is strongly in favor of hand tools almost exclusively. In a time of economic constriction, it will be even more critical to have a good set of hand tools, and experience using them. Several years ago I gave away my power tiller (along with its noise, vibration, and stink), in preference for the broadfork, which is not only more pleasurable to use, but better for the life and structure of the soil. Though I still use two power mowers for some chores, each year I rely more on the scythe. Both broadfork and scythe make wonderful use of the body, engaging the user in a meditative dance that makes the work a joy rather than drudgery. (By the way, I garden about seven thousand square feet, and manage one acre of pasture. I’m sixty-two.)
Failures, and success
We’ve had more than our share of failures—planting too deep or too shallow or at the wrong time; seeing that first beautiful garden transformed seemingly overnight into an intractable, weed-tangled jungle; the grisly death of nineteen young chickens because I never dreamed how small a least weasel could be. We always urge our visitors to see their inevitable failures as opportunities for learning; and quote my long-time mentor, Joel Salatin, who defines success as “getting back up one more time than the number of times you fall down.”