Finding Your Dream Home: Gardening (part 5)

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Suburban stockade introductionFor the last couple of weeks, we’ve been looking at the decision-making process while shopping for a home. (Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four).

Now, let’s turn to the yard, and its future role as a way of raising your own food.

The key to food production is planning and management. It is wasteful of time, energy, and resources to grow more food than your household will use. We keep running up against this problem here at Fortress Peschel. It is easy to grow 50 pounds (or more!) of tomatoes. But what do you do with them all? Especially if they all ripen at the same time? They can be given away to the neighbors, they can be dried, frozen, or canned, all of which take time, and they can rot in place (which at least puts organic material back into the soil!). The preserved tomatoes all have to be used up during the rest of the year. If you don’t use them up, prior to growing new ones the following year, you end up with still more preserved tomatoes in your pantry making you feel guilty.

Your vegetable garden doesn't have to look as good as at Longwood to provide plenty of food for the family table.

Your vegetable garden doesn’t have to look as good as at Longwood to provide plenty of food for the family table.

There is an obvious solution, but one that isn’t that easy to implement. Grow less. Way, way, less. This requires being honest about how much home cooking from scratch you are going to do and are you growing things that your household will eat. It is really easy to grow twelve tomato plants: four slicers, four cherries, and four marinara style. They don’t take up very much space. It sounds like such a small amount Yet twelve plants give a huge amount of tomatoes that have to be dealt with. We may be better off with only six plants, two of each type.

Then we address the peppers (which freeze well and we do use up), the lettuces, which have to be eaten fresh as lettuces don’t preserve at all, the cucumbers which we always grow as supermarket cukes are terrible, the carrots which are cheaper and easier to buy, the swiss chard which no matter how we cooked it tasted like dirt and my God! The enthusiasm with which it grew! The tomatillos which were best used as a sort of lemony jam as any other way no one liked them. The sweet potatoes which grew with tremendous vigor but the weather was uncooperative so we couldn’t cure them well and we discovered that we don’t use them up at nearly the rate we should have so they will have to be dealt with, somehow. The peanuts which younger son wanted to try and the amount of work involved in harvesting and shelling them made supermarket ones so much easier and cheaper. Onions which turned out, after the first very good year, to be never worth the effort ever again. Onions from seed don’t grow that well for us and onion sets from the hardware store all came pre-inoculated with onion maggots so now we have to wait several years before even thinking about onions ever again. Egyptian walking onions grow with such joy that they take over the yard in no time but as they are mainly a substitute for leeks and green onions, how many do you need? Not nearly as many as we have. Kale which grew beautifully and then we didn’t use it up fast enough. Spinach which was excellent and grew sparsely and grudgingly. New Zealand Malabar spinach which was sold to us as being a heat proof spinach substitute. It grew fine, but bore very little relationship to actual, delicious spinach. Rhubarb which grows with vigor but how many rhubarb pies can you eat and back to that damn kitchen again to freeze it all for the winter.

Bleah. I do think that everyone should grow at least some of their own food. It makes you appreciate just how hard farmers work and how easy and cheap it is to buy decent produce at the grocery store. And some foods, like tomatoes, good lettuces, and cucumbers have to be grown at home in order for them to taste like they should. But, you have to learn to grow what your family likes to eat and you don’t want to grow more than what you will eat.

Preserving the harvest for the winter is an extremely worthwhile goal but it has had, for us, a steep learning curve both in the preservation skills and the using them up in the kitchen skills. We keep coming back to that pesky time management thing. If I am spending time cooking from scratch then I am not spending time sewing for me or my clients and I am certainly not spending time writing for you, dear reader.

The other reason for learning to grow some food is that eventually, you may have to do so, in order to supplement the rice and beans you can afford to buy at the store. Home grown produce gives variety, taste, and much needed trace vitamins and minerals to supplement that boring diet of grains and legumes. It takes time to get your soil up to par and it takes time to learn how to grow things successfully, cook them successfully, and preserve them successfully. We have had our share of failures and anyone who tells you that they can take a jar of preserved seeds and grow a successful garden after the zombie apocalypse is delusional. They’ll starve while waiting for those seeds to produce something edible.

If you have to grow some of your own food, a slightly larger parcel of land, say a quarter of an acre rather than 1/10th of an acre may, may be better simply because you can allow parts of the yard to lay fallow every year. That is, you don’t plant every square inch every year but let the soil rest instead under its life restoring layer of green manure. If you are going to let beds lie fallow, you need enough of them to rotate them in and out of usage and that means you need a little, just a little more space for the extra, empty beds.

So don’t be lured into thinking that you need to buy acres of land on which to grow a mountain of food. You don’t. You do need to have some space on which to learn and practice but it can be as small as a tenth of an acre. When I walk Muffy through the village of Hershey, we cruise the alleys looking at all the back yards. There are many tiny yards that are closely managed and they produce, clearly, plenty of produce. This is, by the way, yet another reason for a fence with a privacy enhancing hedge. You may not want to have your food production efforts on display for all the world to see. And touch. And take.

We have about a quarter of an acre (8/32), including the footprint of our house and driveway. Subtract out the house and driveway and you move down to 6/32 of an acre, maybe? Subtract out the wilderness-y screen across the front yard providing privacy from Google Street View and habitat for wildlife. The total acreage I can grow food on got smaller, maybe 5/32 of an acre? This space is our fenced in back yard lined with yews and thujas to act as more screening. There is a hedgerow of blackberries and other shrubs on the north side with hardy kiwi trellised along the fence, a tool shed and compost bin area, a climbing gym grown over with hops, clothesline space, a back forty to retreat to, a thicket dead center to provide wildlife habitat containing shagbark hickory trees, a row of persimmon trees and gooseberries, a rise of hazelnuts, a bed of three kinds of currents, a row of twelve columnar apple trees, and some grassy areas. This is a lot of potential food production right there.

Raised beds and pathways under construction.

Raised beds and pathways under construction.

Finished asparagus beds, planted and waiting for spring.

Finished asparagus beds, planted and waiting for spring.

Then we come to the extensive raised beds, with built in trellises on some of them, their paved walkways, and the two permanent beds of perennial vegetables (rhubarb and asparagus). These beds, if I managed them better, harvested them better, cooked from them better, and preserved from them better have the potential to provide much of the vegetables and fruit we currently eat. I wouldn’t have to buy very much produce other than citrus and bananas. If I changed my cooking to reflect what I can grow in my climate (and trained the family to eat it) and gave up entirely on things I can’t grow in my area, did four-season gardening, and learned how to preserve it all for the winter, I wouldn’t have to buy any garden truck at all.

To do this my gardening would have to be much better thought out and accomplished. If I improved my container gardening skills, making better use of the natural winter light I have, I could grow citrus and peppercorns in my house. According to the Logee’s catalog, I could grow my own bananas, coffee beans, and a wealth of other tropical goodies. Their catalog is astonishing and shows how much you could do, if you wanted to spend the time, money and effort.

If I wanted to, I could transform the abandoned climbing gym into a chicken coop. That would net us eggs and manure for soil enrichment and if we were serious about this, meat for the pot. I would remove the hops as I don’t think we will brew our own beer and replace them with grape vines. The fruit would be more useful than the hops and I suppose we could make our own wine instead our own beer. That might be easier as wine can be made from grapes alone but beer needs barley to go along with the hops.

Convert a child's gym into a usable chicken coop. Or a brother-in-law suite.

Convert a child’s gym into a usable chicken coop. Or a brother-in-law suite.

We have enough room that we could house rabbits for meat as well. The difficulty would be Muffy wanting to eat the rabbits before we get to them. The other hard part would be slaughtering and prepping the chickens and rabbits so we could eat them. But I could learn. Plenty of people do.

If I wanted more meat than what I could raise easily in my ¼-acre yard, I could take advantage of the fact that Pennsylvania is a big hunting state. There is a season on some kind of game animal virtually the entire year. Deer hunting is so big in Pennsylvania that the first day of deer-hunting season with a rifle (we have several deer seasons depending on how you kill them) is a day off from school! It is traditionally the first Monday following the Thanksgiving Break, so we get a five day weekend for the holiday. The Reese factory down the street has an empty parking lot on the first day of the season. Plenty of people here in Pennsylvania fill their freezer with meat for the year during our various hunting seasons. We could do that too, and thus have to purchase even less food than we do.

If I wanted to add more to the workload, I have the space for a bee hive or two. That means better pollination for the entire garden, honey, and beeswax for candles.

All these possibilities on a ¼-acre lot in town, surrounded by other ¼-acre lots. So yes, some land is vital but it doesn’t have to be acres and acres. I like living in town and a smaller lot is the usual trade off for services like a post office, drug store, bank, and grocery that I can walk too. I can get quicker emergency response too — police, fire, ambulance, and rescue — simply because I am closer to all those service providers. That is, they don’t have to travel for miles down sunny dirt roads deep in bear country to reach me when my house catches fire or the electricity fails due to winter storms.

Next Week: Almost at Your Dream Home