Saturday, June 16, 2012

What the last 4 years have taught us

This blog started in April 2008 when we were in the planning stages and were just going to make a little patch for herbs and salads. Then in June 2008 our family started a real vegetable garden as I wanted a patch of ground to grow a few veggies for my family. We started with 5 raised beds and a whole lot of hope and expectation of what great yields we would get.

2008 sees us all enthusiastic and making a start
This blog documents our struggles and victories and all our learning curves. The lessons that we have learnt fall into a few main categories, but please remember that as you look at our blog now and think there is so much we do...this was over a 4 year period that we learnt and grew and tried and developed.

A few months after we put our first seedlings into the ground which we had bought from the nursery, we were able to pick our first salad. It was with much ado that the bowl was placed on the table and we marvelled that we had produced FOOD.

Something clicked in our thinking that we could be producers not merely consumers. This led us to expand our veggie growing areas over 3 years to encompass our whole yard space. Having 900sq meters for our plot and about 400 of that taken up with paving, home and outbuildings we have approximately 500sq meters to grow food on. Take off a bit for pond and pathways, we still have a decent space for this.

The biggest thing that we learnt was to keep our expectations in check. You can’t but help naively believing as you sow your seeds, that every seed will produce fruit, but this is sadly not the case as some do not germinate, others that do are attacked by pests and yet others mysteriously die. 

Seeds sown in newspaper pots
We also switched quite early on to growing from seed. A lot of what we use are heirloom varieties, others simply organic and we still grow some hybrids. This opened up a whole new learning curve in planning how much needed to be sown and what the best way was to do it.

Now I don’t feel faint when we sow 100 corn seeds into newspaper pots or 50 tomato plants into the ground. This is what it takes to feed us in season. I say "in season" because we are yet to have surplus to can for out of season use. Luckily our climate allows us to grow year round so while we may not have tomatoes on our shelves for winter, we have a variety of other veggies to eat.

First years corn...feast!
Once we got close to our vegetables like this, we started asking questions about where the rest of our food was coming from. We paid special attention to the “suspect” foods that are treated with hormones and antibiotics like beef, pork and chicken. Finding sources for these items became important to us as we read and learnt about the treatment of animals in feedlots and ultimately what was left in the meats which ended up in our bodies.

Chillie preserves
Other things that spiralled off from growing our own fresh food over the 4 years are:
Cooking from scratch
Using up left overs (more on this below)

One of the first things that we did was start a compost heap and set up a recycling system. Our bin used to overflow on the day of the rubbish pick up but within a month we were down to a half filled bin just because of these two waste disposal systems.
Compost heaps in the car port.
Compost heaps and wormeries are two of the simplest things to implement and you can take this to any level – making your own wormery or bin or buying one if you can afford. All our green garden waste no longer was seen as waste but as treasure for our garden as we added the leaves and lawn cuttings to our heap. We feed our worms weekly on our peels and green scraps and suddenly we were getting liquid fertilizer for our plants.

I also had to address cooked food waste in our home. Before this time I used to be very quick to throw away left overs or fruit and veg that were soon to go over. Now all things are collected and added to something I am cooking. Mash ends up in gnocchi, soup ends up in stews, chicken carcasses end up in stock all helping towards the greater goal of mindful frugal living.

Recycling then needed to addressed as we realised that we could not continue to generate that amount of plastic, glass and metal waste with a clear conscience which meant that we needed to reduce the use of items in these containers. This meant that we would have to find ways to grow or make things ourselves and then keep them in a way that they would not deteriorate like canning and freezing. This lead into the next point...

Learning Skills
Besides for the food that we were now producing which gave us, and still gives us, great excitement, learning certain skills in running a small urban farm had such a WOW factor. I have learnt to make soap and am getting more and more adventurous with how I do this. My sons have learnt woodworking and practical skills like how to plant potatoes and make fences for example. My daughters are learning to cook from scratch, can and preserve, to make super nutritious stocks, sow seeds, plan a garden, sew and mend and all of us are learning to live in the season of life.
Young seamstress
I know that the skills I learn and then teach to my children will affect generation after generation and while I am no doomsday prophet, I do believe there is coming a time when our children and their own children will need these simple skills again that are lost to the 21st century. 

Other skills I have learnt:
Soft Cheese Making

One of the things that we didn’t expect to be so overwhelming was the demand on our time and family capacity. When we invested in the materials to convert our garden to a mini farm we also had to make sure that we would then be good stewards of this project. The wood, stones, fences and compost were expensive and we needed to make sure that we got our money back. This meant giving up doing certain things so that we could keep the little farm going, sowing seeds, harvesting food and more. 
Hard work shredding garden refuse
It builds your character when you have to go and shovel compost into vegetable beds, but you would rather be lying in a warm spot with a book. It builds character when you know that spring is around the corner and you need to sow 500 seeds so they can be planted in September. It builds character when you have to weed yet another bed because they have sprung up again in the two weeks since their last appearance. It builds character in my sons when they have to care for their 10 chickens instead of playing guitar or Lego.

My children used to be embarrassed by their weird mama who grew vegetables instead of flowers and knitted while waiting at exams, now they laughingly say they live in a vegetable garden with a house plonked in the middle. They have learnt the difference between work (hard, hard work often!) and rest and they are always the first to notice the difference in the food that was grown right outside the door and cooked very soon after harvesting.

We never knew all the things that would spiral off our decision to grow our own vegetables but now, 4 years later, we look back and are happy with what has developed. There are some things that we would do differently now that we have hindsight, but we have carved out a little path here for ourselves and we walk on wondering what more we will soon be learning.


Kathryn Ray said...

It really is amazing how one small decision turns into a complete change of lifestyle.

Congratulations on all of your progress. It's very inspiring. :-)

Lois Evensen said...

What a wonderful four years! I've enjoyed reading about it on your blog for the past couple of years.

Wendy said...

Thanks you Lois for being a faithful reader/commenter. Thanks too Kathryn for the encouragement!

Lisa B. said...

It has also evolved into much more than just growing a garden here at my homestead also. The learning has been so satisfying, and although my 14 year old still has plenty of time to play, he is learning what it takes to grow and preserve your own food, make your own soap, cheese etc.

Tanya said...

Great retrospective and some valuable lessons. I just have to share it with others.

reginascottage said...

thanks for the review about your wonderful four years. i like reading
about your life.....very interesting,for me.
wish you a wonderful week,
love regina

africanaussie said...

wow it seems that one simple decision had a real domino effect. I go through stages where i wonder if it really is worth growing my own food, and then I see what success you have had and it spurs me on again. thanks for all your wonderful information.

Samantha van Riet said...

I really enjoyed reading about your four year journey with your vegetable plot. I hope you will return soon.

Samantha van Riet said...

I really enjoy looking back over the last 4 years with you and your garden. I also planted up my back garden and have vegetables sneaking around to the front. Hopefully i will be where you are one day.