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What to grow in the garden? That is a question we all ask ourselves each and every year. There have been years of great variety. And then there is this year where there are few different vegetables. Today I’m going to talk through our process of growing a garden. I hope you will glean at least a little wisdom from our successes and failures and changes of plans.
As always, I want to take just a minute to say welcome to all the new listeners. I hope you enjoy this podcast and will subscribe. And welcome back veteran homestead-loving regulars. Thanks for stopping by the homestead for every episode. I truly appreciate you all so much. In these times of division, it’s wonderful to come together with peaceful-minded listeners.
Our Virginia Homestead Life Updates
I have quite a few homestead updates as well as some reflection on gardening. Let’s get started. First off I want to invite you to hop over to our website and take a look at our “About Us” page. There is a brief story of how we got to where we are today. I think you might enjoy it. I’ll put a link in the show notes.
Cows and Calves
The good, the bad and the ugly is going to be covered today. Let’s start with the ugly. That would be Luna’s left eye. She has pink eye.
We treated Luna this morning for pink eye. It’s a simple cure that just needs to be done promptly. Her eye is really ugly though. However, there is no reason to believe that she won’t be fine in a few days.
Pink eye is common in young cattle. It’s highly contagious and is transmitted by flies. And boy do we have flies. I have a natural fly formula that gets sprayed on all of the girls twice a day. It only lasts 12 hours or so and most people would not go to the trouble of treating their cows twice a day. The standard treatment is some kind of chemical. We have the advantage of milking twice a day, so applying the natural treatment goes right along with milking. Another advantage is how few cows we have. If we had hundreds, natural treatment would not be practical.
I have seen some pretty creative natural remedies. We visited another dairy farm and creamery near us a couple of years ago. They had a machine that literally sucked the flies off the cows as they walked by heading back out into the field after being milked. Another solution is a kind of walk through fly trap. As the cows walk through the device, the flies are brushed off of them. After being knocked off of the animal the are trapped in a screen chamber similar to a minnow or lobster trap. The flies go in but cannot find their way out. These devices have to be placed where you force the cows to walk through, usually on their way to their food or water source. I hope to give this method a try in the near future.
The flies are really bad from June through at least the end of August.
Now for the bad. The artificial insemination is quite the learning experience. You have to catch the cows when they are in heat and get the insemination accomplished quickly. So far all of the cows are confirmed to have NOT taken on their first attempt. Three of the five cows that we are currently milking have had a second go round. Buttercup is not far enough past giving birth to Virginia to have come into heat again. That will be soon. And when Butter was inseminated again, the ag tech checked Violet and found we had just missed her heat cycle by no more than a day or two. Sigh . . .
The bottom line is that Violet and Buttercup are definitely not pregnant and still need to be fertilized. The Claire and Cloud will be due for a pregnancy check soon. It’s like a merry-go-round trying to get this done. Perhaps when we are more experienced it will go much quicker.
Finishing up with the good news. Everyone is healthy and enduring the summer heat quite well. Excepting Luna, of course. The two younger calves are growing like weeds. They have such beautiful Normande colored coats. The coloring of this breed is so unique. They are simply lovely grazing in the fields.
The best news is the setup that Scott has come up with for getting the previous breeding bull, Sam, and Thunder, the steer into the trailer for their trip to the processor. I expect that there would be very little problem getting Thunder onto the trailer. It is Sam that is the problem. He has been rather wild from the beginning. He was not born here. We purchased him from a breeder a few hours north of us. They don’t handle their cattle nearly as much as we do.
From the beginning we were not able to get close to Sam. In those early days he was jumping fences right and left. He even spent a couple of weeks across the road in a neighbor’s field until we figured out how to get him back home. He just jumped fences so easily.
We have had him a couple of years now and gradually he has gotten over being so skittish – to a point. There is still no way that we can walk up to him or touch him. And if we pressure him in any way, he will still jump. Scott ended up building a small corral area on the end of the livestock trailer. All of the boys are in there right now. Soon we will take out Rocketman and Perrin. They won’t be making that journey to the processor just yet. We’ll save that for next year.
Sam and Thunder will be all by themselves in that makeshift corral. All of their food and water is in there with them. In fact, the food will eventually only be accessible if they actually climb into the trailer. After about a week of that, we are pretty confident that we can get them both to easily climb in the trailer. Cows are very habitual creatures. They are wary of unfamiliar settings but once they are used to things being a certain way, it doesn’t bother them. The plan is to get them used to that trailer so that it is no big deal when we start to close them in tighter and tighter and there is no place to go but into the trailer.
That’s the plan.
The blueberries are done and the blackberries are coming on strong. We have a ton of them. I checked them this morning and they are mostly still red. I may walk down and get a closer look this evening. It seems like some of them should be ripe by now.
Once the blackberries come in, it will be round after round of making seedless blackberry jam. Over the years I have perfected my techniques in making this delicious jam. I hate the seeds. Likely you do too. It’s a good bit more work, but most definitely worth the effort in my opinion. I may make some blackberry syrup and blackberry jelly also. Those are made with juice.
I have two pieces of equipment that are essential in making these tasks easy and successful. One is a steam juicer and the other is the food mill attachment on the Kitchen-Aid mixer. I use the steam juicer for extracting the juice for syrup and jelly. And I use the food mill attachment to get the seeds out of the berries, leaving the pulp crushed and ready to make jam. Yum, yum.
The strawberry bed is a disaster. We have plans for next year. However, this year I’ve just about given up. There are so many weeds that it is essentially a weed bed with a few strawberry plants. An animal was eating all of the berries as they became ripe. I had one good harvest in late spring and since then it has been all downhill. Between the weeds and the unauthorized eating of our lovely fruit, I’m so done with the strawberries this year.
Next year we plan on digging up any remaining plants and planting them through the ground cover we are using in the garden.The garden is amazing. It will be a big job to dig them all up, clear the weeds, put down the ground cover and replant. In the end, it will be worth the effort. Don’t you just love homegrown strawberries? They are nothing like those cardboard ones you get at the grocery.
Just a brief note on the quail because I want to get to the topic of gardening. Tomorrow the current batch of eggs in the incubator goes into lock down. I will remove the automatic egg turner and close the lid until three days after the first chick is born. The first chick is expected on Saturday and Tuesday everyone who hatched goes into the brooder. Next podcast I will have an update on how many hatched. Remember, we started with 84 eggs this time.
The previous batch are nearly full grown. The boys are crowing and crowing and crowing. I’m starting to look for eggs. Any day now we could start to have eggs from the newbie hens in the penthouse.
The breeder hens are laying quite regularly. We currently have 13 hens and usually get 12 eggs every day. I’ll be adding in a couple more hens from the penthouse to the breeder cages in about a week and a half. It’s such a joy to watch these birds go from eggs to fully grown birds in just 8 short weeks. They are amazing.
I don’t have much to say here. Scott is mowing fields, moving cows, building temporary corrals, fixing fences, assisting with artificial insemination, making trips to town for various animal and fencing supplies and so on. There is always more to do than time to do it. Add to that trying to build this giant project . . . well you get the picture. Not much going on with the creamery over the last week. I say it’s too hot to be up on the roof anyway. Summer is truly here. It seemed to sneak up on us.
What to Grow in the Garden?
Our gardens have evolved from four raised beds, 4 foot by 8 foot, built out of wood to 20 beds, 3 foot by 8 foot, with two 70-foot by 2-foot border beds made of concrete blocks. Our first attempts were dismal. This year, we are rocking and rolling with what we are growing. We’ve come a long way.
The First Attempt
Those first 4 beds got overgrown with weeds and bugs ate most of the plants. I planted beans, tomatoes, onions, collards, brussel sprouts, cabbage, lettuce – oh all kinds of stuff. The only success I remember was the brussels sprouts and collards. And not the vegetables. No, it was the next spring when they went to seed. I got some really good seeds.
I don’t remember if we used that garden more than that first year. I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure we expanded what we were doing the very next year.
The Second Attempt
The second garden setup was quite interesting. Our land is sloped. Scott built more raised beds. To handle the slope, they were built in tiers. Some were 4-foot by 8-foot beds and some were 2-foot by 8-foot beds. The narrower beds were for things like tomatoes and vines such as cucumbers and squash. They were built to have a trellis down the center. Oh and we also grew green peas in those. They also had a trellis. Everything else went into the 4 x 8 beds.
The paths went between the beds and there were 3 beds, set up in tiers as I said. So each row of 3 beds ended up being 24-feet long. Three beds were butted together with a step down (or up depending on the direction you are walking) for each 8-foot bed. This worked pretty well and we used it for several years.
I tried to grow lots of different things in these beds. In addition to all I mentioned above, I also grew spinach, radishes, beets, turnips, potatoes, and sweet potatoes. Oh, and the squash. I tried lots of different squash. And I almost forgot the peppers and eggplant. And not just one variety. I would have three or four kinds of peppers, three or four kinds of tomatoes, three or four kinds of eggplant, and so on. And the lettuce, there are so many different kinds of lettuce.
The problem with a brand-new bed is that the soil is not that great. It takes a few years to get the soil to a place where the veggies grow really well. Another problem was we were still traveling back and forth to South Carolina. The weeds continued to take over by the end of the summer. Bugs would devastate the plants while we were away.
Those beds were made of untreated 1 x 12 boards. They deteriorated after only a few years. On to the next garden.
The Final Attempt
Once we stopped working in South Carolina and dedicated everything to the homestead and creamery, it was time to get serious about the garden. In early 2017 Scott literally built a huge garden out of concrete clocks. I am into my fourth year and it is going really well.
This was a huge garden project. He actually leveled the land, cutting down earth and using it to build up the lower areas, so we would have a level garden area. No more tiers. Also, I decided on a 3-foot width for the beds after trying 2-foot and 4-foot previously. The 2-foot width seemed a waste of space because there were more paths between narrower beds. And the 4-foot width was just a little too far for me to reach across to the middle of the bed for planting and weeding.
Scott made the sides significantly higher as well. Each bed is three-blocks high. I think that is two feet. Each block is eight inches high; I think. It seems higher than two feet. Anyway, there is not nearly as much bending. The half bending can still tax my back some, but in a different way than having to bend all the way to the ground. Plus, I can sit on the side of the bed to rest my back. It is truly a work of art. We are into the fourth season and I am still loving it.
This more permanent structure and the fact that we could tend it daily if needed has made all the difference in the world. Over the past three years, I have steadily increased what I am able to grow. I have also significantly modified what I plant.
What I Used to Plant
In the beginning, starting with the very first garden, deciding what to grow in the garden was challenging. Well, the first garden was pretty small and I didn’t have the space to grow too much. But after that, I planted many, many varieties of vegetables. I’m talking six kinds of head lettuce and six different leaf lettuces. Green beans, yellow wax beans and purple beans that turned green when cooked. I would have three kinds of spinach and three varieties of beets. I planted red, white and even blue potatoes. Two varieties of sweet potato. Turnips, rutabaga and two kinds of kohlrabi. Red cabbage, green cabbage and six varieties of Chinese cabbage. What about tomatoes. Well at least 4 or 5, perhaps 6 different types of tomatoes. The same for peppers. There were cucumbers, zucchini, yellow squash and pattypan summer squash. At least 3 or 4 types of winter squash. Muskmelons, watermelons and cantaloupe. I tried corn a couple of times and there were always at least two or three kinds if not more.
Every year the seed catalogues had multiple pages with turned down corners as I tried to narrow down my choices. Deciding what to plant in the garden was an absolutely delightful activity. I just wanted to grow everything. I grew fennel one year. And escarole. Growing escarole led to growing another type of dried bean. I found this wonderful recipe for white kidney beans, called cannellini beans, and escarole. It is so good. I think I forgot to mention the types of dried beans I grew. Two kinds of lima beans, black beans and red beans. This list went on and on. And always in the back of my mind was a culinary herb garden. Oh, I grew peanuts the second year of the block garden. Last year the peanuts didn’t even sprout but I did try to grow them. I would have tried again this year but waited too late to order seeds.
Modification in What I Plant
The first two years in the masterpiece garden, I planted as many different things as I could. If I had more space, I could have filled it. The soil was new and much of it didn’t really do well. I began to see clearly what required lots of work and little veggie and what was easier to maintain.
Lettuce is particularly difficult to manage. I tried succession planting. That’s done by planting new seeds or seedlings every couple of weeks. Theoretically, we would have lettuce over a longer period of time rather than being inundated with this highly perishable green. You need lots of refrigerator space when you grow lots of lettuce. Invariably, much of it will go bad before it can be consumed. Additionally, one of the advantages of growing your own lettuce is that just-picked, fresh flavor. If you pick it and then work through it over a few weeks, it begins to be as tasteless as the stuff you buy at the grocery store. Kind of defeats that purpose of fresh flavor and active nutrition.
With lots of different vegetables and lots of different varieties, it started to make summer canning an arduous task. All of the different varieties ended up being dumped into one batch of beans or squash and so on. The extra effort of trying to maintain all of those separate varieties began to wear on me. I still wanted the veggies, but did I need to try and manage so many different kinds?
Last year I scaled back on varieties. I only planted green beans. No wax beans and no other fancy colored beans. Just green beans. There were a couple of different varieties but only because I had left over seeds from the previous year. Red potatoes and Yukon Gold were the only potatoes. One type of sweet potato. I didn’t grow cucumber because I already had so many pickles and relishes. Sure, it would have been nice to have some fresh, but I couldn’t keep even one plant alive. They just didn’t do well. It happens sometimes.
The first year of the masterpiece garden, I planted a couple of varieties of sweet corn. But last year, no corn at all. I didn’t enjoy growing it and it has been a failure every time I have grown it. I still planted a variety of peppers, some sweet and some hot. They ended up being chopped and dehydrated all together. I have a mix of dried peppers that I put in soups, stews and crockpot meals. You never know how hot the dish is going to be.
Two years ago, Scott shored up the wall on the side where the soil was built up. He piled rich compost up against the wall to hold it in place. In order to hold that soil in place slanted against the wall, I needed to grow something in it. I planted four winter squash varieties, two pumpkin varieties, some old muskmelon seeds I had on hand and some old watermelon seeds. The winter squash was amazing. It overtook the muskmelon and the watermelon seeds didn’t sprout. In the end, the whole wall was winter squash and pumpkin. I was especially inundated with butternut squash. I also harvested some beautiful acorn and delicata squash. There was a significant amount of spaghetti squash. Much of that squash was dehydrated. The butternut squash was cooked, pureed, and then dehydrated. I measured the exact amount for pie – it tastes just like today’s Libby’s pumpkin – and after dehydration, I powdered it up. Now all I have to do it add hot water and it comes back to pureed squash in 15 minutes or so. Voila, ready to make a pie. Lots of work, but worth it.
I didn’t grow any squash last year, but the compost pile produced lots of volunteers. The cross pollination created some interesting squash. I sold some of them for fall decoration.
What I Plant Now
Last year I scaled back on varieties. This year I scaled back on the different types of vegetables as well as limiting varieties. Beans, tomatoes, potatoes, celery, crowder peas, and onions. I also have quite a few herbs. Basil, parsley, cilantro, oregano, thyme and rosemary. The last three are perennials and I will have to move them to pots. So far, so good. The parsley and cilantro don’t look to good, but the rest are thriving.
Last year I had a very successful year with tomatoes. But I grew far too many slicing tomatoes. Mainly I make my own tomato sauce and barbeque sauce. It took way too long to cook the water out of those slicing tomatoes to make sauce. This year, I have only sauce tomatoes. They are doing quite well.
I am growing one type of green bean, one type of lima bean, small red beans, black beans, and cannellini beans. I started with only red onions but did end up adding a couple dozen yellow onions that I started from seed. There are three beds of red potatoes and one of Yukon gold. Those came from the potatoes I had in storage from last year.
I am growing six varieties of peppers. The difference is I am expanding on my dehydration plans. I have lots of each kind. There will be many, many peppers. This year I will dehydrate each one separately. I have cayenne, sweet cherry, serrano and jalapeno hot peppers. The sweet peppers are California Wonder bell peppers and sweet banana peppers. I probably won’t grow peppers at all next year.
Also, I decided to stop growing lettuce. We just don’t eat enough of it to justify the work of tending it. It only grows for a very short time in the spring. After year after year of failure with cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower, I gave up on those. I would like to be successful with the cabbage, but these others just take up too much space and not enough yield. We also don’t eat much of these veggies. Although I would like to be able to successfully grow cabbage. I’ll have to think about that a little more before next year.
The last thing I am growing this year is sunflowers. They are giants right now, maybe 8 or 10 feet tall. There are no blooms yet but I keep looking for them. Some of these guys have to have reached their full height and are ready to put out that one beautiful and huge flower.
In upcoming years, I will be bringing back more varieties I have grown in the past as I will be growing more and more veggies for the animals. As we add pigs and chickens to the homestead, I plan on feeding them as much as I can from our gardens and as little supplemental feed as possible. The lower garden that has never been developed will be filled with pumpkins, squash, beets, turnips and the like. And the orchard will also provide much nutrition and calories for the pigs. The cheese whey will provide lots of protein.
Scott and I don’t need much from the garden, but the animals need lots. I’ll bet you didn’t see that coming. We may be the only people on the planet growing a few veggies for ourselves with the bulk of the garden being for the animals. What do you think?
Have I given you some ideas about what to grow in the garden? No two families will garden the same way. What will you grow for your family? Likely you will start out as we did, trying to grow everything. One thing I have noticed with homesteaders is that we are pretty practical. After the first blush wears off, we get down to the business of growing only the things that we eat on a regular basis. Oh, I might add a small amount of lettuce one year or reintroduce cabbage. I most certainly want to grow green peas again. I didn’t mention them. It was too late to start them by the time I got geared up for the garden. Well, there is always next year.
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