Gardening for Keeps – My plan for a self-sustaining lifestyle

I spent a pretty decent chunk of my day working outside. The shabby construction in the picture is a “greenhouse” that cost me absolutely nothing to build. … warning, this is a fairly long post.

I should preface that. I had a roll of house-wrap laying around. This is a special plastic fabric that resists wind and water. You can find the stuff at your hardware store in various widths, and it’s usually less than a dollar per foot.

My current motivation is to reduce spending, as the well is dry. Some of my plants are ready to start their transition to outdoor conditions, however, and I needed a place to shield them from the wind. I went round and round.

Hoop-house? No. While these can be really thrifty, I’m trying to stick to my spending guns. The cost of PVC, fittings, and some way of attaching clear plastic went right out the window.

I used what I have. There are trees out here which grow in clusters from a single root network. They are tall and fairly thin, so I wacked a few of them down and used them for construction materials. I had plenty of staples and nails laying about, so I used those too. I built a simple frame by nailing the little logs together, and then covered it. Simple, effective.

Really effective, as it turns out, but I’m not writing this blog post to talk about my little construction. It is, however, a prime example of an unattainable dream of being totally self-sufficient.

Self Sufficiency

This word pair has different meanings to everyone. For many, I think it correlates directly to “having enough money” to buy “your own stuff.” Particularly, the mentality that in a culture centered around roommates and life mates, someone works hard enough to earn their own way. See also: independent.

For homesteaders, permies, farmers, off-gridders and the like, the word takes on a different meaning. There are a few trappers in the Appalachian Mountains who literally live off the land. Even in that instance, they’ll stumble out of the wilderness from time to time in order to sell pelts and buy some basic tools or equipment. They make their own clothing, and harvest everything they need from the forest.

Between these two lines is a vast spectrum. Even the word off-grid has a few subtle definitions. The most prolific is a person who isn’t connected to the power grid. Some (like me) aren’t connected to city water or sewer either. Some make their own electricity, and others go without it. To the person over in paragraph one of this section, these people would seem incredibly self sufficient. To mountain man, they’re a bunch of pussies.

Self sufficiency digs deeper into the off-grid lifestyle, however. I need my laptop to write and connect to my readers, but I enjoy the benefits of electricity. Shelter is easy enough, especially with a wood stove and an air conditioner. Food is another matter altogether. Most of us off-gridders still need to make trips to the grocery store.

In my opinion, being truly self-sufficient would involve an amount of work and sacrifice that would ultimately make it pointless, but we can still make progress toward lifestyle choices that reduce the monthly bills well below the choke point.

I’m not going to be knocking birds from the sky with a sharp rock spewed from a sling made out of tree bark fiber to get a meal for the night. While I’m not past foraging an occasional insect, I don’t see the pay-off in living like a cave dweller. But I would still like to reduce my costs and footprint as much as possible.

How the Money Stacks Up

Right now, in a closet sized room to my left, is about five thousand dollars worth of equipment. Outside, another two thousand worth of solar panels and mounting hardware. When added together, I should have plenty of electricity to meet my needs for the next five years, hands off. After that, I’ll most likely need to replace the battery bank, then the inverter, and finally the panels themselves.

On a 25 year time-line this will add up to another 6000 dollars worth of batteries, 3000 worth of electrical equipment, and about 1000 for new panels. Total cost of power for the next 25 years? 17,000 dollars.

If you do the math, that’s around 56 bucks per month for electricity. Feels nice though, making a one-time payment to get it up and running for a long while. Incidentally, many of those costs are likely to keep plummeting.

So, while I “make my own power,” I’m still dependent on the modern system of things to keep it rolling along. At this point, I’m not planning to start manufacturing solar panels or micro-electronics. The same goes for food, but food carries a silver lining.

Making the Most of my Garden

I’m still learning to grow things, so I’m probably a bit off my rocker and perhaps a little naive. But growing your own food can amount to much larger savings than any solar or wind generation scheme ever could.

I could hook up to city power, and probably dump as much into that as I did into all of this gear. Likewise, I could buy a bunch of fertilizer and compost in bags, truck it out here, and build some pristine little food zone that would make Martha Stewart proud. I’m not going that route.

For the last three months I’ve been researching my tail off, learning about growing things I’d never considered growing, and doing some soul searching. I’ve been adapting my eating habits, even if I’m not yet eating from my own plot. I’ve also been becoming increasingly frustrated with these people who say you need a 4000 square foot garden to feed yourself.

It’s all a bunch of bologna. The problem with that repeated number is that half the shit on their list is stuff that doesn’t keep well, requires a ton of extra work, and is completely unnecessary.

The other thing nobody looks at is the seeds. You need seeds to grow stuff, and you can’t save them if you’re eating them, or eating the plant before it can produce them. So that 4000 square foot number can eat my foot. It’s based on faulty assumptions, and irrelevant depending on how you garden.

Making it Yourself

Little deviation here. If you are making money on your plot, whatever the size, and you can buy all the food you need. Then you’re covered. Just a thought back to that paragraph one personality. This is the basis of bartering. You do something beneficial to other people, and in exchange, you get food through the status quo pro economic system.

But this is about saving that food money for other things, by picking it, growing it, hunting it, raising it, etc. I said the 4000 square foot number was based on faulty assumptions. I want to point two of them out.

You might need more room. Finding a flat spot to make a garden isn’t easy. Finding good soil can be downright daunting in some locations. And if you are planning to make your own seeds, you need space to let crops grow to seed. Grains and beans bypass this problem, leading to the next point.

If you are growing calorie crops instead of eight different lettuce varieties, more tomatoes than you can eat, and in general trying to stretch unseasonal foods through the whole year, you can save yourself a ton of energy and a ton of space in the garden rows. That 4000 number is based on the assumption that you are growing whatever you like to buy from the grocery store. Just as adding solar power means changing your energy habits, surviving on your own food might mean changing your diet.

All of this said, you can buy seeds every year for cheap, give yourself plenty of greens and veggies, grow a couple exotic plants, and still cut your food budget by a ton over the summer.

In a perfect scenario, however, where you were truly growing ALL of your own food, you would need to grow enough to feed some animals for your meats, raise enough seed to regrow the stuff next year, and then feed yourself. Grains, beans, and root-crops cater to this kind of mentality. So I imagine the smallest sustainable garden could be relatively small, but it would see mostly corn, grains, oats, beans, potatoes, and turnips. Not exactly super appetizing.

My Current Food Plan

I’m not going to a totally bland garden. I’m not above buying seeds. And as with everything else discussed in this post, there’s a lot of gray area when someone says they grow their own food. (I see it cited often meaning they grow their own vegetables and fruits, but buy everything else)

All of this thinking about self sufficient food has me on a path toward a couple of fairly simple growing guidelines. I have at least 330 beans out there in my field, and they take up three out of nine garden rows. These are my staple. I love eating soup, and beans are almost always in there. In fact, I’ve been eating them as a staple for weeks, when I’m not at work munching on pizza slices for lunch. My hope is to get enough to fill a five gallon bucket, but I may be dreaming on that. Still, that should amount to one pretty big hill of beans, and there should be plenty to set aside 400-600 seeds for next year. I may also try a second crop of them if they grow fast enough, but I’m not sure what size.

I’ve been looking everywhere for maize, and so far have been unsuccessful locally. I may need to order some or make a trip over to the Baker Creek seed place. Maize is a new-world crop and the ancestor of modern ear corns. Sweet corn doesn’t keep well, and I’m okay with bland flavoring. I had taken a set against commercial corn farming for a long time, but the plants are just ridiculously prolific, so finding a variety that sits well with me will go a long way toward trying a couple rows in my garden. I plan on using it for seed, polenta, massa, hominy, grits, corn flour, corn nuts, chicken scratch, and much much more, so I need a good field corn, even if it’s lacking in the sweet department.

Peppers and Dill. These weren’t on my “feeding myself” list, but there’s more going on here than meets the eye. Dill will obviously help with my pickling if I can keep the shrubs from getting mowed down in a thunderstorm, and I plan on drying a decent crop of cayenne for spice. The little buggers are in the seed tray as we speak, enough for a whole row.

Turnips, and other roots. I have only a handful of carrots and taters in the ground at the moment, but turnips are just a good all-around root veggie that seems good for just about anything. There’s a lot of experimenting in my root department. Ideally, I’d like a crop that I can leave in the ground and harvest any time the soil isn’t frozen through the winter, so I don’t have to worry about long-term storage as much.

Small batches. Yes, some tomatoes. Squash, cucumbers, onions, some lettuce greens, and all the other normal garden stuff, including my 18 garlic plants that are growing like weeds at the moment. There’s no point in totally ditching the wonderful tastes of summer harvests. Might even snap some of my beans before the rest are left to dry.

Herbs. These guys are giving me hell to try and grow them from seed, but I will be establishing a little herb garden at some point.

That takes care of the “outside” crops. Let’s talk about something else. The “inside” crops. I’ve been researching and learning to grow sprouts and microgreens. These would require me to burn a pretty good bit of seed, but still seriously reduce my cost of salad greens through the winter. And since I don’t eat many greens, I can capitalize on the dense nutrient content of each serving. I plan on starting a persistent crop of mini-greens to get some food harvested in weeks rather than months, and keep it coming all year round. My mini-green idea is essentially a micro-green crop that is allowed to keep growing while I harvest a little daily. The succeeding crop will be planted one week after the harvest crop. Because they will grow bigger while I’m midway through a slow harvest, they’ll be bigger than microgreens but won’t have time to really reach the size of a “proper” baby green. I call them mini-greens, and the harvest will be anywhere from 2-4 weeks depending on the species and how my system shakes out in real life versus on paper.

I’ll be growing some sprouts too (one-week harvests).

Aside from needing a large seed input, the little indoor greens will also require copious amounts of seed-starting soil. On average though, a week of greens shouldn’t be more than a dollar or two, probably much less, and it doesn’t get much fresher than slicing them off the stem immediately before cooking or snacking. The big thing with little greens is food right now. Short harvests mean I can be eating them very soon, and I could theoretically grow seed crops for them later on.

Just because the “growing season” is over, doesn’t mean it’s time to stop growing. I’m raising some hard red winter wheat in one of my microgreen trays at the moment for wheat-grass. This is the stuff I mill up into flour, and while I’ve no hope of raising enough wheat berries to bake bread, but it will make a pretty awesome cover crop for the garden that can be turned into green manure in the spring. I may also experiment with some clover and nitrogen fixers as well. Winter isn’t off the list for me, and I’m collecting a list of small crops I keep outside in the cold months for a variety of purposes. I might even try some barley or hops.

Sufficient?

Not really. Not right now, at least. Probably not ever. But I do look at my garden as a food SOURCE rather than a food supplement. My primary producers make plenty of their own seed, they grow fairly easily under less than perfect conditions, and they are sturdy for storage. If I stick with the microgreens, I’ll have to start making my own seed-starting mix and dig garden area #4 as a seed crop for things like sunflowers and peas, but it may not be worth it because the price of those staples is super cheap on the market. I don’t have to make everything, but I want to make the most of what I can. Smaller amounts of diverse crops will be great for canning, but I don’t want to end up building a warehouse for the storage of glass canning jars. Drying and smoking are always options as well, but I have my hands full as it is, so maybe later.

With any luck, I hope to be raising enough food by next year to feed myself and a small flock of laying hens, and perhaps some broilers as well. I like meat, and putting a little chicken on the plate from time to time would be nice. For now, of course, the goal is getting stuff in the ground. My original food goal for this year was to have one plant make it to harvest. Next year the bar will be drastically higher.

What are you growing in your garden?


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Author: spottedgeckgo

Writer. Making my living on my pen, and working to turn a raw chunk of land into a future homestead.

9 thoughts

    1. My neighbors down the road referred me to one. Might check it out. There’s a big seed saving group not too far from here where some of the local shelf stock comes from. I know they have a blue corn but I’d rather not pay $3 for a tiny envelope. Was thinking about running up that way to see about getting something bulkier for a discount.

  1. Just tomatoes this year here in the bay area. Water, ya know…
    I’m glad you’re not aiming for ‘perfection’. No such thing. And good enough is, in truth, good enough. Another mantra in my previous profession is, ‘Reward Approximations’.
    Love the plenty ‘good enough’ greenhouse!
    Jeanne

    1. Thanks for the comment. Tried taking some cuttings from my pear trees today, and they’ve taken up permanent residence in the little greenhouse. Had my survivor plants from the first attempt at seed starting out there most of the day and they did fine, brought them inside later. It took quite a bit of thinking and looking at what I had available before I landed on the idea. I didn’t even strip the bark because I don’t expect it to be a permanent facility, just something for now until I can build some cash flow.

  2. I’m always surprised at how engrossed I get into these posts. Even when they’re long, if I don’t have time to read it in one go, I come back and finish it later. It must be nice to have Spring there. It’s snowing here, which I guess is our version of Spring. Your warmer weather may contribute to my fascination with your garden, I can sit here and imagine what it’d be like for something to be growing already.

    1. Snow this time of year? Sheesh! I wouldn’t put it past the Midwest to drop a late freeze on me with some flurries, but snow on the ground at this point would be pushing it. I’m in zone 6b, so it’s not a bad spot for growing things. Are you thinking about plants? Have you started any seeds indoors?

      1. We have a really short growing season here, but we’re in a nice part of the state, where it gets a bit warmer earlier. Haha which is funny to say when we still get snow in May. But we’re in zone 5 and the rest of the state is zone 4, so we have more growing opportunities than others. We’re not planning much of a garden this year due to some hectic schedules. We’ll probably have a few tomatoes, radishes, cilantro, basil, and a couple other fun plants, but nothing too serious.

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