Being self-sufficient in water and energy is really just a matter of infrastructure (enough tanks/batteries/wood stoves etc) and learning how to use it. Being self-sufficient in food is another matter altogether. There’s vegies and fruit trees, annuals and perennials, crops and support plants, grains, dairy, herbs, spices, preserves and so on. For a couple of ex-suburbanites, the complexity was a bit overwhelming at first.
After a lot of fiddling about, we’ve discovered that a good way to think about things is according to the kind of skill and maintenance each type of food needs. For example, both of us had small vegie gardens where we lived before, so for us the easy first step was to establish a vegie garden and try to be self-sufficient in vegies first. And while we were at it, we’d have a go at learning how to care for the fruit trees that are here. Grains and dairy might have to wait a couple of years, but we should be able to sort out food storage, and jams, preserves and pickles ad hoc, when we have surpluses of anything.
So we started by fencing the vegie garden, which was an epic in itself. And then we complicated things further by trying to combine crop rotation with companion planting and monthly sowings. And the self-sufficiency thing means always having a variety of things to harvest – no “empty spots” in the year where you have to live off pickles and jam. So eventually it all worked out, a bit like this:
Some vegies mature in a fixed amount of time, so you can plant them at regular intervals to make sure you always have a crop ready to harvest. We put rocket, lettuces, spinaches and silverbeets, bush beans, carrots and beetroot into this group and plant them every month that the gardening books recommend you can plant them.
I have to laugh because I just noticed that I unconsciously wrote the greens first, followed by the beans, then the roots. We’ve divided each month’s plantings into leafy greens, legumes, “fruiting” vegies and root vegetables (“greens, beans, fruits, roots”) because when we can, we’re trying to use a very simple moon planting method: leafy greens in the first quarter, beans and fruit in the second, roots in the third. It works out as a very useful way to organise our planting – look at the moon the night before and know what you’re due to plant tomorrow – and some old gardeners swear by it, so who are we to say we know better?
Other vegies we don’t plant every month. Why?
- Some crop over several months, so it’s no point planting every month or you’ll end up drowning in that particular vegetable. It’s arguable that silverbeet could fall into this category, but we still plant it every month because it makes us feel good. Other plants in this group can include cucumbers, tomatoes, capsicums and eggplants.
- Some store well, so you only have one or two crops per year (like garlic, onions and potatoes)
- Some mature according to day length, so you need to plant them at certain times of the year or they won’t have enough time before the equinox or whatever to do their thing. Here’s a good article by Linda Woodrow on this.
These vegies we handle in different ways, depending on the reason why they’re not “every-monthers”. And here’s yet another thing we’re trying to consider when deciding when and where to sow:
- Solanums (eg potatoes, tomatoes, capsicums and eggplants) apparently succumb violently to a kind of virus if you plant them in the same place as you planted them last year. Before I heard of this, I often planted solanums year after year in the same place, and can’t remember any viruses. But we’re taking all suggestions on board, so we’re trying to avoid replanting solanums where there were solanums last year.
And just to complicate things, some vegies belong to more than one of the above groups (eg potatoes are solanums and store really well and are affected by day length) so …
The vegie garden is a square divided into 4 strips. Each strip has a door that allows the chickens entry when it’s time to scratch up and replant. Two strips (1 and 2) are for monthly plantings of greens-beans-fruits-roots (each strip has enough space to plant 3 month’s worth), strip 3 is for solanums that luckily also happen to be long-croppers or good storers and strip 4 is for the chickens. After around six months we hope to let the chooks onto 1 and start monthly plantings in 4, and so on. The next solanums planting goes on 1 after the chooks. And so on.
Here is our provisional “planting plan”. I know some experienced gardeners scoff at planting plans and just somehow know how much to plant of what and when, but we have no idea what we’re doing, so without a plan we’re likely to end up with a January full of tomatoes and cucumbers and nothing for the rest of the year.
As well as aspiring to a continuous wide-variety harvest, we’ve tried to include lots of different heirloom varieties of lots of different vegies (and certainly no hybrids – it’s no point if you can’t save the seed!) to test out what works best here, and when. The whole plan is just a first ball-park best-we-can-do guess, and I’m pretty sure that next year we’ll laugh at how naive we were in trying to grow, say, tomatoes in fruit fly season, or whatever. But when we look back next year at what worked and what didn’t, we’ll change the bits that didn’t and go from there.
So, this is the obsessive part. At first I wasn’t sure if I was going to admit this online, but bugger it. In order to better change the bits that don’t work, we have to know what exactly doesn’t work. Every time we sow a crop, I try to write down (where appropriate) when we sowed it, when it emerges, when the third leaves appear, any problems/pests, when the first flower/fruit/harvest happens, when it goes to seed and when we pull it out. I have a year’s worth of folder packed with messy writing and muddy pages, with lots of missing bits of information where I’ve missed the emergence of say, third leaves, because we’ve been building a fence or fixing the road instead. But the information I did manage to record has been invaluable – there’s no way I would have remembered how long the cucumber took to fruit, or that we planted 8 (and five survived, which BTW is way too many for two people). And we’ve had about 8 crops of rocket/lettuce and silverbeet since I started, so I’m getting a fair idea of how long things take to grow at different times of the year, in which part of the gardens.
All that data-recording probably seems a tad excessive. Lucky for me in my former life I spent a lot of time in labs recording way more useless information, so it’s not really an effort, more of a habit. But even so, roll on the day I can just sniff the air and know it’s time to plant exactly 314 onions in summer garden strip 3!