What Can You Do with a Couple of Acres (or Less)?
I wrote the following as a handout for my presentation at the Fauquier Live Energy Festival, September 29, 2007 in Warrenton, Virginia, and for other local talks. It is a brief summary of what we've been doing here at Boxwood, by way of illustrating how much you can do with a small space. ~Harvey
In 1984, we, Ellen and Harvey Ussery, moved to our modest two and a half acre homestead in the village of Hume. Since our move to “Boxwood” (for the extensive plantings of fine old boxwoods here when we arrived), we have increased every year the proportion of our food produced in our own backyard. We estimate that at this time, together with our own produce and what we buy from local small farmers, about 85 percent of the food on our table is strictly local in origin. We offer our own experiences as model and inspiration to others aspiring to the modern homesteading life, through public speaking, writing (Harvey writes for three homesteading magazines: Backyard Poultry, Countryside & Small Stock Journal, and Mother Earth News, for which he is writing the series “21st Century Homesteading”), and this website.
Most folks with access to even the tiniest bit of “dirt” have the opportunity to grow more of their own food. (All have the opportunity to procure more of their food from local sources.) In order to give an idea of the possibilities, we outline below some of the things we do to produce more of the wholesome, deeply satisfying food that graces our table.
We grow all the common vegetables, and many of the less common ones, in all four seasons—potatoes, sweet potatoes, daikon, carrots, celery, tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, broccoli, peas, beans, onions, cooking and salad greens, the list goes on. We do not use any chemical fertilizers—indeed, we do not purchase any fertilizers at all. We recycle every bit of organic matter residue, grow cover crops everywhere we can fit them in, and always have the garden in cover crops over the winter. These practices not only fertilize the soil, but improve its depth and condition, and nurture the organisms in the soil food web. We do no canning, though we do a little freezing of vegetables and fruits. Our preference is growing vegetable crops that store naturally without further processing: potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, beets, cabbages, Chinese cabbages, onions, shallots, garlic, winter squashes.
Eating fresh year-round gets a big boost from our 20x48-ft greenhouse, a most valuable addition to the food self-sufficiency enterprise. (If you don't have the space or funds for a greenhouse, you can grow a lot of cold hardy salads and cooking greens in cold frames of many sizes and designs.) From our greenhouse we harvest an abundance of fresh winter greens, some—such as chicories, spinach, and mâche—right through January and February. We also keep a couple dozen of our chickens in the greenhouse over winter, allowing them out onto a heavily mulched garden. And the greenhouse contains our extensive vermicomposting operation, in which we use earthworms to convert “pony poop” by the pickup load from a neighbor who breeds and boards horses to “castings” (worm excreta), one of the best natural fertilizers of all, and a major part of our soil fertility program. (In the winter, we also harvest some of the worms to feed our poultry flock.)
The permaculture concept of the “forest garden” is an exciting one which we are trying to make a reality at Boxwood. With judicious selection of species, it is possible to plant a canopy layer of larger, taller trees (as in a conventional orchard), then “shoehorn in” shrubs which have evolved to thrive and produce fruit or nuts in the partial shade of the larger trees. At ground level are perennial herbaceous plants as a ground cover that produce food, or help protect the soil and improve its fertility, or provide food and shelter to beneficial insects. In our various plots of forest garden large and small, we are growing: three chestnuts, three mulberries, three plums, six apples, three Oriental or kaki permimmons, one American persimmon, five pears, two Asian pears, three paw paws, four cherries, one juneberry, two jujubes, one medlar, one quince, one crabapple, one hawthorne, and one che (“melon tree”). In the spaces between these larger fruit trees, we planted one elderberry (more volunteers elsewhere on the property are being encouraged), eight filberts (hazelnuts), three gooseberries, two currants, two bush cherries, and two Nanking cherries (one each of white and red). At ground level we have made a beginning with skirret (a perennial with an edible root whose flavor resembles parsnip), perennial bunching onions, nodding onion, garlic chives, violets (both flowers and leaves are edible), sorrel, cranberry, lingonberry, and wintergreen. We have made separate plantings of berry crops: strawberries, blueberries, wineberries, blackberries, and raspberries. Along the edges of our woods and pasture we have planted eight nut trees (grafted cultivars of black walnut, hickory, pecan, hican, and Carpathian walnut), a golden raintree, a sugar maple, a sourwood, and a sycamore. In a secluded corner of our woods we have planted a woodland garden of culinary and medicinal herbs: spikenard, wild ginger, sweet cicely, Solomon's seal, bloodroot, goldenseal, ramps, and more.
Dealing with crop damaging insects
For many years now we have used no sprays of any kind to control insects, believing that the answer to damaging levels of insect predation is not killing insects at all, but maximizing the diversity of insect populations possible at our site. When insect populations are thriving, predator and prey and pollinator species establish balances which greatly reduce the level of damage to garden crops. Do we still have some insect damage? Yes. Despite that, do we still produce, in every garden season, more food than we can eat or give away? Absolutely. We encourage insect diversity and balance by striving to have an abundance of flowering plants of all kinds at all times in the growing season. Many of these flowering plants have multiple functions. For example, Harvey has gotten fascinated with medicinal herbs. Many of the herbs he has planted—chamomile, lemon balm, yarrow, vervain, meadowsweet, baptisia, anise hyssop, astragalus, calendula, echinacea, St. John's wort, sage, comfrey, nettles, feverfew, and more—not only encourage insect diversity, but offer food for the table, protect and improve the soil, provide green forage for our poultry, etc.
Though we no longer have dairy goats, we kept them for ten years. Goats, “the poor man's cow,” are ideal for anyone intimidated by the idea of managing such a large animal as a cow. Excess milk can be fed to other livestock on the homestead, such as pigs or poultry. Goats are active, curious, and personable. If you decide to keep them, spring will be the family's favorite time of year. That's when the kids are born, and they are playful and endlessly entertaining.
Poultry are the easiest of all livestock to care for—the ideal “starter livestock” for the small homesteader. Housing can be minimal, utilizing an existing outbuilding. We made our poultry house from scratch, and left an earth floor in it, covered deeply with organic litter such as oak leaves or wood shavings. The birds scratch in the poops to create a “slow burn compost heap” that is more pleasant and labor-saving for us, more healthful for them. Rather than keeping our flocks confined to a small, denuded, droppings-encrusted run, we let them range over growing pasture, protecting them from predators and confining them where want them using electric net fencing, or electronet. We have made our own feeds for years, but the heart of our feeding program is maximizing access to live, natural foods. A key to homesteading success is integrating all the elements into interwoven patterns so they mutually support and enhance each other in synergistic ways. Some of the ways we use our poultry for important benefits other than their eggs and meat for the table: They help with slug and insect control in the garden (before the gardening season begins). The guineas control squash bug in the winter squash plot. When we need to till in an area of cover crop, or heavy weeds, or even pasture sod we want to convert to new garden ground, we use chicken power to do the tilling. (We haven't owned a power tiller for many years.) In the process, the birds self-harvest foods of a quality and nutritional density we could not hope to duplicate. We rotate our ducks and geese over our lawns in sections—they greatly reduce the need to mow, and convert all that lovely grass to delightful winter meals.
There are serious reasons to doubt the safety, quality, and security of the highly centralized, industrialized, faceless food system that supplies our supermarkets and fast food restaurants. It is doubtful any of us can do much to change the dismal output of that system. Producing more of our family's food in our own back yards (or buying it face to face from small farmers we trust) not only puts wholesome, healthful food on our tables, but reconnects us to the miracle and abundance of life. In so doing, we take up again our sacred responsibility to be good stewards of the land on which we live, and help to resolve some of the biggest problems of our time.