farming, gardening, homesteading

Spring on the Homestead it’s the little things that can get you ahead

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If you are anything like us, you can’t wait for spring to arrive after a long winter.  Although the temps are still chilly, there is so much you can do to get ahead of all the work that will pile up when the real warm weather arrives.  There are many days in early spring where we feel like there isn’t much we can do, but if you look a little closer you will find many jobs that can be done.  You can also get a jump on this years’ garden.  One of our first signs that it is time to get moving is the arrival of garlic. When these pretty green plants emerge from the soil our dreams of warmer weather begin.  It is around this time that we move our tomato seedlings into the green house. We have a small 6’x8′ greenhouse that is heated by a small electric heater.  It keeps the greenhouse at least 50 degrees at night and this seems to be warm enough for our seedlings, but not for germination.  We germinate our seeds indoors.

This is also a great time to start planning your garden layout for the growing season. We assemble, construct and put in pea and bean trellises and fix fencing.  We also are busy raking and cleaning out coops now that all that great fertilizer is thawed.  IMG_2647

This is also a perfect time to do little projects.  Especially those that require a few hours in the shop on a rainy cold day. We also do projects that are close to the garden so that we don’t have to worry about stepping on plants like we would in the summer.

While we are getting all of these projects done, our little seedlings are growing away in the greenhouse.  It is almost like getting two jobs done at once.

Before we know it asparagus is poking out of the ground.  It won’t be long before we can start planting cold weather crops outside. img_2912

This year we started many of our cold weather crops in pots to give them a jump start.  We will try anything to get fresh vegetables onto our table as soon as possible.  We are even trying to grow peas for the first time in the greenhouse.

img_2703As soon as we know that the freezing weather is past, we move our cold weather veggies outside.  These include kale, spinach, lettuce, peas, collards, broccoli, and cabbage.  We also plant potatoes and carrots.

img_2899 It is so good to to see life and have plants to check on again.

While we wait for Memorial Day to plant our warm weather crops we spend time getting to know the new arrivals to the homestead.

There is always something to do in the spring.  Often those things are little projects that barely seem worth taking your tools out for, but rest assured you will be glad you did when summer arrives.  Spring it seems is an exercise in motivation, and as the years go by, we find ourselves more and more motivated to get going earlier.  In homesteading, there is never enough time, and getting moving earlier in spring may just give you a little more time to enjoy that beautiful summer weather.

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gardening, homesteading

Planting onions to save your greens and cabbage

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For years we grew cabbage and other greens in our garden, but we always ended up with the same result.  All of our cabbage and greens would be riddled with worm holes.  It was always so disappointing to remove the outer leaves of a cabbage to find it full of holes, or pick a bunch of spinach, lettuce, or kale that looked like Swiss cheese.  We set out to find an answer that didn’t include pesticides.  After a lot of research we were no closer to an answer.  Finally one day after reading about homesteaders from the 1800’s, we found the answer was onions.  As it turns out many of the bugs that like greens, don’t like onions.  We decided to try it, what did we have to lose?  We planted onion sets in between our greens.  It was also fortuitous that both greens and onions needed to be planted in cool weather.

In the above picture you can see how we planted in this case along side kale.  After a month it became apparent, that the old timers really knew what they were doing.  It’s hard to imagine how much of their knowledge has been lost, but we are happy to have been able to preserve this small piece of knowledge, and pass it down to our children who we hope will always plant onions with their greens.  The onions didn’t totally eliminate the problem, but they were 90% effective, and we are willing to give up the 10% to keep pesticides out of our garden.  This approach is not only better for us but also for our bees. It is hard to argue with the results.

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We were so happy to have these amazing vegetables, and feel safe giving them to our family knowing that they are pesticide free.

Harvesting onions

After harvesting the greens there is an added bonus, beautiful onions.  Onions are harvested in mid summer normally in our area. We wait for the onions to tell us when they are ready to be harvested.  When onions are finished growing for the year, their tops will fall over.

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After this happens we pull the onions and lay them out in the sun to cure.  Curing onions properly allows us to have onions well into the winter.  Different varieties keep better than others.  In our experience yellow onions keep better than white or red.

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After the dirt on the onions dries, and the tops wilt, we move them to a covered location to continue drying.  We put them onto wire mesh to allow air to circulate around the whole onion.  This keeps them from growing mold and rotting.

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Once the onions have dried, and their skins are like paper, they can be stored in an onion bag.  We like to hang ours to encourage air circulation.  Any onions with and bruises or blemishes should not be stored, we take these onions and dice them.  Once they are diced they can be frozen.  Cutting up 30 or 40 onions can make you cry, so try swim goggles while dicing.  The diced onions are great when you are pressed for time when cooking.

Growing food like anything else in life it takes time and experience to learn.  Because of this we always seek the advice of people who have done it before.  In this case we would be remiss if we didn’t thank those tough old homesteaders who plowed the ground before us and showed us the way.  Sometimes in life and gardening you need to take a step back to move forward.  In an age of quick fixes and a chemical for every problem, all we really needed to do was look back to how our forefathers did things to find a solution.  13697150_10205657397148371_851773985273865071_n

cooking, farming, ham hock, ham shank, ham soup, homesteading

Sometimes Happiness Looks A Lot Like A Pig

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Sometimes things just happen for a reason.   Last fall we had our first set of pigs butchered.  Our first time raising pigs was very rewarding, and all the meat in the freezer was a great reward.  However, I was feeling a little blue without them on the homestead.  They gave me so much joy and without them around things were a little boring.  One day while looking at Facebook, I saw that my neighbor had a post that said there was a pig loose.  We live on the edge of a small village and a pig running around was a first for us.  My son, wife, and I went to investigate, and sure enough there was a spotted pig running around.  We tried to catch him, and soon realized that he belonged to another neighbor who erroneously thought he could keep a pig in a small dog kennel.  Finally we caught him, but he just kept escaping.  I knew that life for this pig was not going to be pleasant so I offered to buy him.  Luckily my offer was accepted, and  I carried the pig like a big baby back to my house.  We named him Houdini because he was an escape artist.  We found out later he was brought home in the trunk of a car. Because of it, Houdini was traumatized. We gave him hay and a heat lamp, but he was so unhappy.  He would just lay there and not move. So after some research, we came to the conclusion that he needed company.  We were able to acquire another pig, and when we brought her home Houdini perked right up .  We named her Dottie (Dorothy was Houdini’s assistant in real life) and after a few days they were inseparable.

I was so happy to have some buddies again.

They warmed up to us after a few more days and would even take apples from our hands.  Keeping pigs in winter was a whole new experience.  We insulated their house with hay and put a heater in their water.  We would find them in the morning buried under hay with just an ear sticking out.   They would often pull the heater out of their water so it had to be checked often.  They did not seem to mind the snow and spent a lot of time outside.

On the coldest days, they would lay right next to each other and just snort at me when I went by.  When the weather finally warmed, we opened the fence into the garden so they could till and fertilize for us.

They grew at a slightly slower rate than the pigs we raised in the summer.  In the end they wound up being about 20 lbs lighter with the same amount of feed.  Soon it was time to go to freezer camp.  I was sad to see them go, but it was much easier than the first set of pigs.  I also knew that more piglets were coming in a few months.  We chose a USDA butcher and ended up with 317 lbs of responsibly raised pork.

These pigs gave us the most amazing pork chops, but that is a story for another blog. img_0576

Again our freezer was full.

We have even been selling some of the pork to offset our costs.  I find the best experiences in life are never planned, and you need to recognize opportunity.  So the next time life throws you a hanging curve, knock it out of the park.  To me raising pigs is a home run every time.

cooking, farming, gardening, homemade, homesteading, peas

Take a Step Back in Time and Grow Peas This Spring

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One of the first crops we plant every year on the homestead is peas.  They give us our first opportunity to really work in the soil.  They are also one of the first vegetables we harvest.  They are very easy to grow and preserve, so they are a great addition to any garden.  You can even plant peas again in late summer for a fall crop.  We start planting peas as soon as the soil can be worked.  We plant both bush and vine varieties,  we also plant sugar snap peas for stir fry and salads.  We start planting seeds by turning over the soil and then making a small 1/2″ deep trench.  We then place the seeds about 4″ apart in the trench.

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Finally, we cover the seeds with soil.  Some varieties require a support to grow on, and for those we construct a simple trellis system made from t-posts and some used garden fence.  Over the years we have used all kinds of different materials, but these are the simplest to install and seem to last the longest.  We simply put a t-post every 8 feet and then tie the fencing to the posts with wire.  The least expensive wire we have found is in the masonry department at our local lumber yard, it is used to tie re-bar together so it is strong enough to do the job and the price is right.  Sometimes we use wooden stakes for additional support.

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In 7-10 days you should see your seedlings begin to emerge.  It is so exciting to see new green in the garden. After a long winter those little green leaves can really lift your spirits.  They grow fairly rapidly and really enjoy the cool weather.

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Those little marvels will send out tendrils and climb up your trellis.  We keep the weeds at bay by using an extra heavy weed guard, but weeding by hand is also a snap.  As the days grow longer the peas will stretch for the sky .

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Eventually white flowers will form and it is from these flowers that your pods will emerge.  You can eat the pods when they are young or leave them on the plant to grow big round peas. We pick sugar snap peas when the pods are about 3″ long, but the best and most fun way to see if they are ready is to taste them.  Peas are perfect for a snack in the garden, and often more make it into our mouths than into the house.  Kids love to pick peas and eat them.  You can teach them quickly how to pick them without damaging the plant.  Some of my first garden memories are of picking peas and beans in my grandfather’s garden.  Even then, very few made it back in the house to grandma.

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We pick our peas when they are nice and round inside, again it takes a little trial and error to get the right size.  Once the peas are picked it is time to shell them.

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Sitting on the porch shelling peas truly brings you back to a simpler time.  We often shell them at the end of the day and have an adult beverage with great conversation.  The most wonderful part of shelling peas is that you cannot use your cell phone while doing it.  Two hands are required and after a short time you really get the hang of it.  A big bowl of pods does not yield a big bowl of peas, but they sure are worth the effort. We also feed the pods to our chickens and pigs so nothing goes to waste.  Unless you have grown them you have no idea how good a fresh pea is.  Frozen and canned peas are not even close.

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Preserving peas is a snap.  You just have to toss them into boiling water for about 30 seconds then shock them in ice water and freeze in a single layer.  Once they are frozen you can put them into a good quality freezer bag.  Every year we grow more and more peas aside from being a great side dish, they are a great addition to salads.  They can also be a healthy snack.  Growing anything in our garden has to be worth the effort and space we give it.  Peas take up little space because they grow vertically,  and because they grow quickly you can grow more than one crop a season.  The time spent shelling them is almost as valuable as the nourishment they give us.  Growing peas takes us back to a simpler time when people actually talked to each other.  And after growing them you will never look at that big bag in the grocery store the same same.  So grow some peas this year, and don’t forget to wave to your neighbor when they drive by.

farming, gardening, homesteading, how to grow potatoes

Planting Potatoes to Save Freezer Space

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Homesteading is all about food.  Being self-sufficient should just be called surviving because that what the first homesteaders were doing.  They were not trying to shrink their “carbon footprint”, or save “green space”, they were trying to harvest enough food to make it through the winter.  After winter was over, and if they made it, they started all over again.  We are trying to follow in their footsteps.  One of the things we noticed early on in our quest to grow our own food was that we had become very dependent on our freezer.  So we sought out crops that could be harvested, and stored without refrigeration.  One such crop is the simple potato.  It keeps well and fills your belly, so it is a wonderful homestead food.  We start our potato planting as soon as the soil can be worked, but there are a few things that need to take place first.  We choose varieties that we normally don’t buy at the store, like purple and red potatoes.  We also grow Yukon gold and German butterball.  We always choose certified seed potatoes, because they are disease free. img_2702.jpg

Potatoes are related to tomatoes so we are unwilling to risk both crops by saving our own seed.  The homesteaders did not have this luxury,  but we are not so immersed in the homestead life that we are willing to take that risk.  First, about a week and a half before planting,  we take the potatoes out of their bags, and put them in a warm sunny spot indoors.img_2701

This gets those eyes to start growing.  After a week we cut the potatoes into pieces containing two eyes per piece, and put them back into the sunny spot.img_2721

This allows us to get more out of our seed potatoes.  After two days the potatoes should form a callous over on the cut end.  This callous will keep the potato from rotting when planted.

To plant the potatoes we dig a ditch 8 inches deep, and place the potato pieces cut side down in the ditch. img_2770

We then pull 4 inches of dirt back over the potato pieces.  We do this so that when the potatoes are 12 inches tall, we can put the rest of the dirt in the ditch.  This will keep the newly growing potatoes under the soil.  If they make their way to the top and the sun is directly on them, they will turn green and be useless.  Often we have to add additional dirt to keep those pesky spuds below ground where they belong.  We wait until the tops of the plants die off before we harvest.  Harvesting potatoes is like Easter morning, but instead of looking for eggs you are looking for delicious tubers.  The potatoes we grow last us well into the winter.

We store them in a cool dark place in a potato sack.  We know they will not last all winter, so we make sure we use them up before they go bad, and are wasted.   Growing potatoes is so easy because the plants really don’t take much care.  Thy grow very dense vegetation that keeps the weeds down as well.  So if you are looking to save freezer space, potatoes are a must.  They were a staple for our ancestors, and are a valuable addition to any modern homestead.

 

We made a YouTube video covering the whole process