A Year of Self-Sufficient Living
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By Jenny Underwood I have to be honest and say that we’ve dabbled over the last 20 years at producing or harvesting our own food but this year, we decided to kick it up several notches and produce or wildcraft up to 90% of our food. We decided to focus on growing vegetables and fruits and procurement of wild game. This is our year-long story.
First off, we decided to start our seeds this time around and they did SO well! What we did differently this year was to start them by our wood stove on a stand we built from recycled materials and a specific grow light. We also used a natural fertilizer that was full of nutrients. Our starts were strong and sturdy and we hardened them off in a mini-greenhouse that we made to set over one of our raised beds. After setting them out, we mulched all of our plants and watered them with a natural fish and seaweed emulsion.
We had an extremely cool spring that then settled into a very hot summer. Because of this, the plants in our raised beds were able to be planted about a month before our conventional garden. Our conventional garden is at my father-in-law’s over the hill and through the woods. Unfortunately, our potatoes were planted well over a month late because of our excessively wet spring. And then when we did get them planted, it rained five inches overnight causing many to rot in the ground. As a result, their harvest was minimal and we got some for fresh eating but none for winter storage. This was disappointing but I was determined to try again next year — plant early and hopefully reap a good harvest.
Our corn was planted in two separate plantings and grew to an amazing height of eight feet! The corn was delicious, and we were able to preserve enough for an entire year. This equated to 36 dozen ears of corn grown and 32 dozen preserved. I blanched and froze the vast majority of it cut from the cob. I also made a large batch of corn relish. This is delicious on tacos, or in soups.
We did have a few problems with our corn. The first was animals. We had planned for an electric fence, unfortunately, the first one wasn’t hot enough and allowed a coon to steal a few ears. However, after getting a MUCH hotter one, we had no problems with animals at all. The wind did come through and blew part of our second round down. It did not stand back up but ended up producing while lying almost flat on the ground. I’m sure this impacted the yield but we still had a very large harvest.
Tomatoes were definitely on my radar this year and we ended up planting 45 of them between our two garden locations. Like with everything, we had both success and failure (or perhaps better-termed learning experiences). Our raised beds grew the most beautiful tomato plants we’d ever seen. However, we had planted too many in each bed and blight took out about half of them. We ended up removing the bad ones and burning them. The rest made it and produced well, but in hindsight, we realized that we would have been much better off planting less and getting more productive plants.
In our larger conventional garden, our tomatoes produced heavily. We did have a few setbacks at first with excessive amounts of rain and fertilizer issues. However, we didn’t give up and were able to reap a HUGE harvest of about 250 pounds of tomatoes. I’m certain if we had done things a bit more efficiently, we could have harvested more but we preserved enough for an entire year of tomato products. I put up sauces, relishes, juice, and salsa and they are DELICIOUS.
A few things we learned from the tomatoes were:
- Space further in raised beds.
- Fertilize early but don’t over-fertilize.
- Get a good staking system in as early as possible.
- Prune off the leaves at least one foot up from the ground to prevent a lot of fungal problems.
All in all, we were incredibly blessed with an abundant tomato harvest. This year also gave us a good feel for our favorite tomatoes to grow.
We also grew peppers which I preserved in my relishes, salsas, and sauces. I chopped and froze several bags also for things like stir fry and Mexican dishes. Hot peppers I preserved as pickled jalapenos. These were very delicious and very hot!
Throughout the summer, we ate onions from our garden and I used many of them for our various sauces. However, while the white onions produced decently, our red onions did not. Our plan for the next gardening season is to only plant white onions.
We waited to plant our beans until August for fall beans to avoid the Japanese beetles. This worked great and we had plenty for fresh eating and a small amount to preserve. Next fall we will plant much more and hopefully have enough for an entire year. We had zero bug issues and the beans were smooth and clean from many of the summer problems.
We also planted fall lettuce and radishes which both did well. Next year, we plan to make a much bigger fall garden as our success has shown that might be when we need to grow certain problematic plants. We were able to preserve a large amount of wildcrafted elderberries and autumn olive berries. The jelly and loaves of bread made from these are fantastic and full of vitamins and minerals.
Our pumpkins also did nicely and I preserved several gallons of frozen pumpkin butter for pies and breads.
Our herbs did wonderfully and we were able to use them fresh all spring, summer, and fall. I picked rosemary, sage, thyme, lavender, basil, and lemon balm and dried those for winter use.
Meat is often a big part of a family diet and one of our goals was to produce as much as possible ourselves or buy locally. As a result, deer hunting is a big part of our fall/winter tradition, and we were able to harvest several. We processed the meat ourselves into steaks, roasts, burger, canned meat, sausage, and jerky. Not only is the meat tastier, it’s also much healthier. We supplemented with locally raised and butchered beef from a friend which we bartered for.
What’s next? This year we were able to purchase fresh eggs from our nephew, but next year we hope to have our own egg layers. I would also eventually love to have a milk goat, bees, and a larger orchard (we planted four more fruit trees this year and more blackberry bushes). I planted garlic and horseradish in the fall for the next year’s harvest too. I was able to start two large compost bins and they will be ready to use the next spring.
My eventual goal is to produce 90% of our own food. This sounds crazy and extreme in our culture today, but it wasn’t that long ago that most rural families did just that. Each year I plan to tweak my blueprints based on my successes and misses. Everything is a learning process and while I am not where I eventually want to be, I am much closer than I was a year ago! I count this year of self-sufficient living a successful one and I look forward to the next.
Originally published in the September/October 2022 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.