With snow on the ground and temperatures dropping, this is the perfect time to look at how our gardens did this past year, compare it to the year before where we can, re-examine our goals, make some adjustments, and use that information to plan on what we will do next year.
Because we went from a pretty small garden the year before, to a much larger – and spread out – garden this year, I will go through things in more detail in later posts. For now, I just want to do an overview.
When we first moved out here, we worked out a multi-year plan. The first summer would focus on clearing and cleaning up the inner yard. The second year, we’d continue working on cleaning up the spruce grove and start working on the outer yard while maintaining what we cleaned up in the inner yard. The outer yard, we figured would take another 2 or 3 years.
With this plan, we would have been ready to start gardening around year five. Which would have made it next summer. Instead, we started our first small (ish) gardens in 2020. We had a few beds in the old garden area, and planted in the newly uncovered, soft soil found under the old wood pile. We were not very ready for gardening at all, but really – if we only ever did things when we are “ready” to do them, nothing would ever get done! 😉
This past year, we kept our main goals, and added some new ones. The main goals have stayed the same. Ultimately, we want to be as self-sufficient as possible. That means growing as much of our own food as we can, in quantities sufficient to store or preserve enough food to last us through to the next garden season. So, not just through the winter, but until we can start harvesting fresh food from our garden again. (Animals will be part of the picture, too, but for now I will focus on plants.)
We didn’t plant anywhere near enough onions for our needs, but that’s part of figuring things out!
When it comes to planting things, whether it is our garden or trees or bushes, we try to meet multiple goals. In our long term goals, we want to have fruit and nut trees. Mid term includes certain types of berry bushes. Growing vegetables are part of our short term goals, simply because they are mostly annuals.
After being here a few years, we have identified gaps in the shelter belt we need to fill, as well as the need to increase privacy screening and dust protection from the surprisingly busy main gravel road that runs past one side of the property. With the aim of meeting multiple goals, any trees or bushes we plant will be chosen not only to meet those needs, but also provide food – and if they can provide enough for ourselves and for birds and wildlife, that’s just bonus. Soil testing has also helped us focus on what we can reasonably expect to grow here at all.
In trying to meet these multiple goals, we did things that would normally be gardening no-nos, like planting as far from the house as we could, and still be in the yard, breaking new ground that will later have things planted permanently. Choosing what to grow was based on things like short growing seasons, high yields and long term storage capabilities.
One thing we have is the luxury of space. That means that we have room to experiment and try new things to see how they do in our zone and growing conditions.
Some things, of course, end up being completely out of our control. Drought conditions being the main issue we had to deal with, this past summer. A plague of grasshoppers certainly didn’t help, either. Then there was the critter damage. That combination of things, plus the far-flung garden beds, made things considerably more difficult than it should have been.
Looking at things from a very broad perspective, though, we had more success than failure. Under the conditions we had, that’s pretty amazing!
I will talk about more specific things later but, in general, here is how we hope to progress next year, which will help us decide where our monthly “seed” budget will go.
The main thing we really need to focus on is trees. These can take years before they will start producing fruits or nuts, so we need to get those going as soon as we can. We’ve identified areas where we can plant things that will need more protection from the elements, and we’re looking at varieties that can handle our climate zone, as well as our nutrient depleted soil. Some of the varieties of nut trees we want to get cannot be planted in the inner yard, though, so we will still have to hold off on those until we can prepare areas in the outer yard. The renter is planning to rebuild the fence around the outer yard, and if he is able to do that next year, that means his cows won’t be able to get through anymore. We won’t have to worry about cows damaging seedlings; just deer! We will also be able to start taking out some of the old fencing around the inner yard, which will make it easier to tend to anything we plant in the outer yard.
We do not have the funds to get everything at once, so we have to focus on getting what will provide the most benefit in the shortest time frame. We will be able to get a few of the slower growing/producing trees, little by little, but will need to focus on faster growing/producing trees and bushes first, even though logically, it’s the trees that need the most time to mature that we should be getting first.
With that in mind, we will be ordering shelter belt berry bushes as soon as we can. Unfortunately, the varieties we had decided on are currently not available, but they might be available for ordering in December or January. Our first layer of “defense” will be to plant Bison Berry (if we can get them) along the East property line, to create a privacy screen. Sea Buckthorn is another one we are looking at, for another area, and we’re also looking at the Rugosa Rose. These will not only provide privacy screens, but will act as dust protection and deer barriers. The berry bushes are also nitrogen fixers. Once mature, they are supposed to be very prolific producers. What we don’t use ourselves will provide food for birds and other wildlife. The Rugosa Rose produces unusually large hips, and the flowers are also edible. (This will be on top of the wild roses we already have growing here.) These are more short to mid term items, as they should be able to start producing in just a few years. It will also take a few years for them to get big enough to form privacy and dust screens, and probably longer before they are dense enough to be a barrier to deer.
For long term, we are looking to order a bunch of Korean Pine Nut trees, if they are available. They require shade for their first few years, and we have the perfect spot to plant a row of them, though they will still need extra shade (and deer!) protection, at first. They are hardy to zone 2, and with 3 yr old saplings, it will still be at least 7 years before they start producing pine nuts. These will be the first nut trees we plan to get.
In the row of crab apple trees that we currently have, we will need to get rid of most of them, due to disease. I’m hoping we can save two of them that produce the best fruit. Crab apples are good for pollinating other apple varieties, so it’ll be important to keep at least a couple of healthy and strong trees.
What we are currently looking at are different cold-hardy apple varieties. I hope to get at least a couple varieties ordered this winter. We are looking for apples that are good for fresh eating, good for storage, and suitable for making cider, as well. Over time, we will be adding pears and plums as well, with the same requirements. These are more mid to long term goal plantings. They will need several years before they start producing, but nowhere near as long as the nut trees we are looking at. Once they do start producing, they are prolific, so we shouldn’t need a lot of trees to meet our needs.
Speaking of prolific, I found a source for a cold hardy variety of ever bearing, white mulberry that we plan to get. A single tree should be enough to provide for our needs, with plenty to spare for the birds as well. I even found a source for zone 3 paw paws! Given the rarity of those, I think we will put a priority of ordering them before they are sold out. Which means that is likely where our upcoming seed budget will be spent.
For short term, we need to start on our raspberries. This past year, the bushes my mother had planted did not produce at all, and the new ones we planted had to struggle with deer damage as well as the drought. We want to get several varieties of raspberries, in different colours and maturity rates. We all love raspberries, so the goal is to eventually have quite a lot of them.
We have found several bushes that appear to be black currants. There are two fairly large bushes, but they are completely shaded and barely productive. I plan to transplant those into sunny areas. I’m also looking to pick up some gooseberry and/or josta berry bushes as well, though probably not for 2022. We shall see.
The main focus with all of these is that they are perennial and, once established, should provide food for many years, so the sooner we can get them growing, the better.
For short term food growing, our original plans have changed a bit. Where the main garden area is, we will be building high raised beds to replace the current low beds, using logs from dead spruces in the spruce grove. Now that I have a chain saw that works, we should be able to clear the dead trees out much more quickly, and have logs cut to size ready and waiting to build high raised beds in the fall. Clearing out those dead trees will open up the spruce grove a lot. While we will be planting more spruces in the spruce grove (there are many little spruces we can transplant from elsewhere), we will also plant food producing trees that can use the extra protection the spruces provide.
The high raised beds we will be building in the main garden area will also serve multiple purposes. A primary one is accessibility, so we can continue to garden even as we get older and more broken. Filling them hugelkultur style should reduce how much water they need, even as high as they will be. This garden area has some shade issues, due to the tall trees my parents planted along the south side, and the beds will be high enough that they should even get more sun.
We will need a LOT more garden space to grow food in the quantities we need, however, and for that, we will be making garden beds in the outer yard, where they will get full sun, too. We won’t have enough dead spruces to use as materials for high raised beds there, as well as the main garden beds, but hopefully by the time we need to build them, we’ll have the funds to buy materials.
Looking at our long term plans, however, we are going to need to expand beyond growing vegetables for ourselves, too. We plan to get a hand mill. Among things I want to grow will be varieties of corn that can be ground into flour, and even different varieties of grains. I am hoping to at least get seeds this year, even if we can’t plant them right away.
As we start to include animals, I want to be able to grow as much of their food, as well as our own, as possible, which means forage crops. I’m even looking at plants that we can use to make our own sugar or syrup (yes, sugar maples are on our list, but there are other possibilities, too).
While some of these things may not be started this year, or even next year, we can still keep the plans in mind as we work on things this coming summer, to prepare. There is a rather massive amount of clean up needed in the outer yard, to have room for all this, as well as for the larger trees we intend to plant. Especially since some of those trees will need to be planted a minimum 30 feet apart, or cannot be planted near food crops because of the chemicals their roots release. Between that and the extra space needed between the raised beds, for accessibility purposes, things will be very spread out.
This past summer was a very difficult growing year. While I will go over specific things later, in general, I consider it a successful year. Remarkably successful, under the circumstances! Even some of our failures where still successes, since we had multiple purposes in mind. Some things we will do again, others will be dropped, if only temporarily, and new things will be tried. We learned a lot in the process, too, making everything a step forward to our ultimate goals.
And that’s about the best I can ask for!