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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Gardening To Feed a Family

If you have been following my blog long, or if you have read my series of post on Beginning Pressure Canning, you might have picked up that I do a bit of gardening and canning.

As shown by my garden in 2007, gardening was once something that I considered a hobby, something that I enjoyed doing in my free time and something that I could stop if I wanted to (although I would miss it).

Now, however, gardening has become more of a job, something that still has to be done when there are lists of other things calling my name as well. 

The transition from gardening being a hobby to being more like a job has come with the opportunity to help provide for our family, which is now considerably bigger and hungrier than when gardening was just a hobby.  By growing and preserving as much of our food as I am able, I can help decrease the amount of money that Ethan needs to earn off of the farm while continuing to stay at home to raise our children and support Ethan.

I have had many people interested in the details of the garden I grew last year, which has finally become established enough to feed a family of 6 throughout the year. Because of this, I am sharing with you my garden plans for 2014, which are quite similar to last year's garden.

My drawings aren't super detailed, but I have included the dimensions of each area so that you can get an idea of how long each row is, as well as a guesstimate on row spacing. You may need to click on the drawings to enlarge them (you can open up a new window to do this as you read along), and free to shoot me any questions if you would like clarification on anything. :)

Garden Overview

My garden is made up of a variety of areas with perennial plantings as well as areas for rotational plantings of annuals.  These areas have been set up to provide for the food that our family enjoys.

This first picture, although not to scale, is a drawing of my garden area, which meets up with my orchard. My orchard and garden have been completely fenced in to keep livestock . . . err . . . pests, out of the garden. (I hope to post more about my orchard at a later time.)

Dividing my garden from my orchard is a long asparagus patch which was started from seed.  This is a perennial planting so it doesn't get tilled, although I do till alongside the asparagus on the orchard side to keep the grass from growing into the garden.  This also makes for a nice dust bath area when we have poultry in the orchard. (The chickens are kept out the garden with a temporary fence between the orchard and garden since they will destroy the mulch and tomatoes.  The guinea fowl, on the other hand, are more than welcome in the garden.  They not only leave the produce and mulch alone, but they ravage insects and pests.)

Below the asparagus is where I have my 4 quadrants which are rotated yearly for disease control and to avoid nutrient depletion. (I will describe each of these quadrants more in depth below.) To the right of my quadrants, there is a 5th quadrant (can I say this??).  It is the width of my other 4 quadrants, although a bit longer, and it is a permanent area for my blueberries and grapes.  I have decided to have them in my garden area to keep them within the safety of my fencing and away from the shade of my fruit trees.

At the very front of my garden is a hydrant positioned in the mid-line of my 2nd and 3rd quadrants.  On either side of this hydrant is an area for melons and one for strawberries. These are rotated on a 3 year basis to avoid nematodes in my strawberries. The melon patch gets tilled yearly, and the strawberry patch gets tilled every three years.

Directly above the strawberry/melon area is a length of green and red rhubarb.  These plants are also perennial plants, so this area doesn't get tilled, but it makes a wonderful dividing line between the area I rotate yearly and the area I rotate on a 3 year rotation.

Along the west fence (this picture is oriented as a compass would be), on the inside of my garden, I plant extra peas.  Along the south edge, on the inside of my garden, I plant herbs and greens.

I also plant a border of annual flowers completely around my garden and orchard along the outside of the fence. These flowers, which we save the seeds from for the following year) serve many purposes, and I'm not sure yet which is most important to me. My main purpose was to have a planting that would stop grasses and weeds from growing under the fence (which would be a nightmare to clean without a spray) and into the garden.  Annual flowers are dense enough to prevent weed growth, and they can also be tilled up every year to keep that strip free of any weeds that do sneak in.  This is also a wonderful way to bring in flowers that encourage pollinators, attract predatory insects for garden pests, and that serve as traps crops for those garden pests as well. Not only that, I have let my kids each have a section of fence to plant, tend to, and pick from, giving them some ownership of the garden.  And the fence line is just plain beautiful as the garden welcomes people to our farm and relaxes me outside my kitchen sink window. (We don't have a dishwasher, so I spend many hours at that window!)

Quadrant 1

This year quadrant 1 is my sweet corn patch. If we didn't have livestock that terrorized sweet corn, this would be a much bigger patch somewhere else, and I would rearrange my quadrants.  But, I work with what I have. This year I am planting my successive plantings in quadrants within the quadrants, rather than in rows.  I had some pollination troubles last year by only planting 2 rows at a time. I'm pretty sure that planting my corn in blocks will help solve this.

Within my corn, I plan on planting pumpkins and squash every other row as I have done in past years.  The large leaves help keep the weeds down within the rows, but you will want a nice walking row every other row since the leaves and vines get dense and prickly.  When a plant starts growing into a walking row, I just twist it back to a growing row. Pumpkins and squash have traditionally been grown in sweet corn patches to keep out racoons who don't like the prickly plants either.  I have not yet had a raccoon problem in my sweet corn, although that could be attributed partially to the fence, but more likely to our great pyrenese dogs.

I have also planted pole beans within my corn some years, another common companion to corn, but I much prefer picking and eating bush beans so I probably won't plant these this year. Although not on my sheet, I will probably try to sneak in a row or two of some purple snap beans along the outside of the corn for fun.

Quadrant 2

This year quadrant 2 will be for my potato and sweet potato planting. This is a pretty straight forward area.  When I harvest a row of potatoes, the row will be tilled up, and I will put in some fall beans. The sweet potatoes will be pulled out late summer so they will occupy their area the whole growing season.

Quadrant 3

Along the top of quadrant 4 I put a cattle panel for planting some more peas. On the back side of the cattle panel, I plant a row of cucumbers which will use the panel when the peas are through. I will also plant lettuce between my cucumbers, which enjoy the shaded side of the cattle panel, thanks to the vines growing on the panel.

On the front side of the cattle panel I have an area for broccoli and cauliflower.  I might add a couple cabbage here as well. Between these plants and the peas, I will try to grow a few more melons, allowing them to vine between my broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage, although I'm not sure if they will appreciate the shade of these plants.  We'll see.

The main part of this quadrant is reserved for my green and yellow beans, of which I can many of. To be honest with you, the main reason I grow yellow beans is because my Grandpa Kies did and they look pretty canned up with the green beans. Otherwise, those rows would be green beans as well.

Dividing my green and yellow beans is a row of eggplant. Eggplant are supposed to benefit by being planted between beans, but this is as much effort as I'm willing to put into eggplant.  I don't eat a lot of them fresh, but they do get dehydrated to be added to dishes (or half of the dish for Ethan's sake) during the winter.

Quadrant 4

Last but not least, is quadrant 4.  Tomatoes seem to take up most of this quadrant, but there is much more going on in here than tomatoes.

This year I am planting 72 tomato plants which will produce just about the right amount of tomatoes for much fresh eating and canning for our family of 6, if the growing season cooperates.  I have planned their rows according to height (except my last row) and sun exposure, with the tallest plants being planted east, to avoid shading out of smaller growing plants. When I plant my rows of tomatoes, I put a t-fence post on either end of the row and one in the middle.  Up and down these posts I stretch fencing wire, and I tie and train my tomatoes on these wires as they tomatoes grow.

It has taken me a decent amount of experimenting to come up with a combination of tomato plants to serve our eating and canning needs, but I think that I finally have it!

On the west side are my Roma tomatoes.  These are not my favorite sauce tomatoes, but they do come on earlier than the San Marzanos (my favorite).  Planting these allows me to can some early spaghetti sauce, and they give me a back up if my San Marzanos have troubles. Next are the Ruttgers.  These are an earlier tomato, very prolific, and long lasting.  Much of my tomato juice and stew tomatoes come from these, which will be used as tomato soup, in stews and other soups, and to cook rice or noodles in for extra flavor. After the Ruttgers are my San Marzanos.  I LOVE these tomatoes.  They are smaller, but their sauce qualities make up for their size. They are an amazing sauce tomato with a low water content and great flavor.  They are a bit later, but once they are going they are very prolific. I have found that these are prone to blossom end rot in my garden, more so than the other tomatoes.  (Blossom end rot is caused by calcium fluctuations brought about by inconsistent watering. Last year, however, when many were battling blossom end rot, not even my San Marzanos had trouble.  I attribute it to a saving my egg shells through the winter, which I crushed and worked into my tomato rows, as well as having a nice layer of mulch around my tomatoes.)  After my San Marzanos, are the San Marzano Redortas.  These tomatoes are completely amazing in their massive size and sauce qualities, although I did struggle with them a bit last year which was my first year of growing them.  The tomato horn worms love these plants more so than the other plants (they like the regular San Marzanos too), some of the plants just didn't take off as well, and they were a bit later than the San Marzanos only giving me a short harvesting season.  The tomatoes I did get impressed me so much though, with one tomato producing enough for almost a pint of sauce, that I am going to give them a try again. I will make sure to give them an extra dose of our rich compost and keep a better eye out for those pesky horn worms. My last row is mainly my fresh eating row, with extras being canned for stew tomatoes or juice.  The cherry and Riesentraube are wonderful little tomatoes to snack on while gardening (for both myself and my kids).  The Crimson Cushion and German Pink had wonderful flavor last year and both earned a repeat spot. (As you might guess, the German Pinks were a huge hit!), and I have a couple spots open to experiment with new varieties, which one day might take over the spots of another.

Around the tomato plants I have a bit of companion planting going on.  Right within my tomato rows, between the tomato plants, is where I plant my onions.  They did very well last year being planted this way. Also, nestled right up alongside the tomatoes and onions are my rows of carrots.  They also did wonderfully last year.

In this quadrant I also have my peppers for salsa, freezing, and pickling. In addition, I have one zuchinni plant and one yellow squash plant, which provide sufficient squash for many breads, soups and meals - either fresh during the summer or grated and dehydrated to be used throughout the winter months.

What Do Groceries Look Like Throughout the Year?

As for feeding our family of 6, including lunch since we homeschool, I budget an average of $35 per week for our food groceries. That gets us 3 gallons of milk, cheese for our pizza night, rice, beans, noodles, oat groats or rolled oats for breakfast, and wheat berries to grind for flour, along with a few other random things. (The oats and wheat berries come in bulk from an Amish store by where I grew up, along with my bulk spices.) 

Last year I canned/dehydrated/froze 522 quarts of food, with 445 quarts coming from our farm. (We had fruits and some extra veggies given to us locally.) We also filled our storm shelter/root cellar with root vegetables, squash, and gifted apples.

I cook almost everything from scratch and don't make a lot of treats or fancy meals, but we eat well from what we have preserved. For our meat, we eat mostly shanks and hocks that I can from our farm, with random other cuts that are end portions or that get packaged funny, which we won't sell. We also enjoy our eggs sporadically when they don't all sell. When they do, we go without. Hopefully we will have a milk cow in the next couple years as I am in the process of training/taming some heifer calves.

As I mentioned, gardening to help feed our family from the farm is comparable to having a job.  Many summer days I would prefer to be hanging out with friends at the lake, sipping lemonade or reading while watching the kids play in the yard, or doing a bit more traveling and visiting.  But my garden is a job that keeps me at home with the kids, and it's a way to support my husband - and for that I am blessed.

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Tools of My Trade
This book has been a wonderful resource to me on companion planting in order to make the most of my garden space and grow foods without the use of chemicals. It details good and bad companions, how various plants work together for increased flavor, productivity, and pest control.  It includes information not only for the vegetable garden, but also for companion planting with fruits, nut trees, ornamental plants, and much more. Copies of this book can be found used or you can purchase a new copy from the link provided.

Much of what I preserve is pressure canned in order to kill all bacteria in low acid foods that would cause dangerous foodborne illnesses. They can be safely canned by using the recommended times and pressures given for your altitude. I have a couple older Mirro pressure canners given to me that work wonderfully, and my mom has a newer one that she loves as well. If you do some asking around, you might find someone who has given up canning and has one available, or you can look for one like the one pictured below. It should hold around 9 pint jars or 7 quart jars.


Anonymous said...

Amazing detail, thank you so much for taking the time to lay it all out for us. That row of colour in the first picture hides a lot of veg garden - I had no idea. From your diagram, it appears you are gardening a 5100 sq ft patch there...bigger than some city lots with houses on them! I love the lay out, and the divisions with the perennial crops. I know you built up to this over the past few years, but I am in awe of how much work you must put into it, all the while managing a household and homeschooling 4 kids. I'd say your prices is beyond rubies :).

The Beginning Farmer's Wife said...

Yes, I guess I am gardening over 5000 sq feet. I have never really figured it out. :) It has definitely been a process to get the garden to this spot, accompanied by a lot of time and work. Like I mentioned though, being able to have our grocery budget so low is a major piece of what allows me to stay at home (the biggest piece, of course, is my husband's hard work off the farm). So yes, the value of that is beyond rubies. :)

Amy said...

That is seriously impressive- and it definitely counts as a job in my book (for the grocery savings alone!!).

Anonymous said...

A question I wanted to ask for a while:
You have managed without a milk cow for a long time.
How important is it for you to have one?

Hank said...

This is great! It looks like you're doing what my wife and I are trying to get off the ground. We've been building our home garden for the past four years, and I've been trying to grow enough for us and our three young children. If you click my name, there's a great reference for knowing how much of each crop to plant to feed each person in your family for a year.

Good luck with your garden this year, and with the milk cow (if you get it). That's something I'd like, but don't think I'd have the patience or ability to care for.


The Beginning Farmer's Wife said...

That's a great question, and something I've/we've been asking ourselves for a few years now. I could probably dedicate a whole post to it. Here is a quick summary of pros and cons:

- Would have our own milk and possibly cheeses (and hopefully ice cream!!!) These are the biggest expenses in my grocery budget.
- Would be able to have quite a bit more dairy in our diet. I make sure that we definitely have the recommended amount, but we would sure enjoy a lot more.
- We would know the source of our milk, which would also be grass-fed: full of so many benefits
- We would manage the cow/calf in a way where we wouldn't have to milk every day if we didn't want to or couldn't

- Time consuming: Ethan and I are already pretty stretched with our time, and we have young children to care for as well.
- Training the animal: Time consuming
- Management of cow/calf and logistics of milking: Our animals are rotated daily on pasture, which means that they are in a different place every day, away from structure
- Investment in milking equipment: this would be made up for what we would save, but it is still an upfront cost
- Getting up the nerve to just do it! It may seem like we should be use to new things by now, but it often takes us a long time to actually make that first step, which can be very intimidating.
- Oh, and did I mention time??

I still go back and forth on if this can work for us, but last year was our year of the heifers. (We have had full years back and forth with bull calves and heifers lately.) I picked one gal and have been working with her so that now I can walk up to her, rub her down, lay across her, and rub underneath her. It has helped to have her in the winter lot. We'll see what happens when they are on on pasture. She is a good year off from being bred so about 2 years from milking. I can always change my mind if I don't want to milk, but it seems like now was the time to start taming one down, and I might try another one now too. I definitely didn't want to start with an old cow with horns that already had a set disposition.

I hope that helps a bit. Maybe down the road I'll do a more thought out post.

Megan said...

Excellent post! My husband and I have 3 young boys and the food bills are starting to add up! We love gardening and feel strongly about growing as much food for our family as we can, so this post was very encouraging to me. I love all the detail and hope to incorporate some of your ideas into our garden this year! Thank you!

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