Homesteading is about creating a lifestyle that is first of all genuine. It’s about learning to recognize your needs—including energy, food, financial, and health needs—and finding out how they can be met creatively and responsibly. In order to harness your own energy for heat or electricity, you first have to face the facts about how much energy you use versus how much you actually need, and then assess your environment and resources to determine the best method for meeting those needs. Before buying chicks or any other animal to raise, be honest with yourself about the time you have to invest in caring for them. If you want a garden, there’s no reason not to have one—but think about how large a plot you can manage before you start digging up dirt. Homesteading is different for every individual or family. Sometimes being genuine means letting go—at least temporarily—of grandiose schemes for acres of land, a home that is completely off the grid, and a barn full of animals. It could mean simply shopping at the local farmers’ market for your produce, or making candles to light in the evenings to conserve electricity. If you live in an urban apartment, maybe you can plant vegetables on your roof, or start a community garden in a park or at a school. This book is meant for everyone who has a desire to be a responsible steward of our natural resources, whether living in the heart of the city or on a hundred acres of farmland in rural Vermont. It’s meant to give you inspiration, information, and the basic directions you need to take a few steps closer to a healthier, happier, and more responsible lifestyle. From sprouting seeds to making a solar water heater to handcrafting paper to brewing herbal teas, you’ll find more ideas than you’ll ever be able to put into practice in one lifetime. But even if you only try one of the projects here, you’ll have learned something new and experienced a different way of being, which hopefully you’ll find enriching. Most importantly, you’ll have had an opportunity to learn something about yourself and what homesteading means to you.
The Home Garden
“My green thumb came only as a result of the mistakes I made while learning to see things from the plant’s point of view.”
—H. Fred Ale
Creating a garden—whether it’s a single tomato plant in a pot on your windowsill or a full acre chock-full of flowers and veggies—takes imagination, hard work, a bit of planning, patience, and a willingness to take risks. There are some factors you can control, like the condition of the soil you bury your seeds in, the time of year you start planting, and what plants you put where. But there will always be situations you can’t predict; you might get a frost in June, an old discarded pumpkin seed might sprout up in the middle of your magnolias, or the cat could knock your basil plant off the counter to its demise on the kitchen floor. This element of surprise is one of the joys and challenges of gardening. If you can learn to skillfully navigate the factors in your control and accept the unpredictable circumstances with patience and a sense of humor, you’ll have mastered a great life lesson. The following pages are meant to help you with that first part: gaining the knowledge and insight you need to give your garden the best chance of thriving. From understanding a plant’s basic needs, to properly preparing soil, to protecting against weeds and harmful insects, this section covers all the gardening basics. Beyond that, you’ll find information on growing plants without soil, tips for keeping your garden organic, and inspiration for gardening in urban environments. There is little in life as rewarding as enjoying a salad composed entirely of things you’ve picked from your own garden. But gardening is also about the process: If you can learn to love the feel of the dirt between your fingers, the burn in your muscles as you dig, and the quiet, slow way in which sprouts reach toward the sun, no moment of your labor will have been a waste, regardless of the end results.
Planning a Garden
Before you start a garden, it’s helpful to understand what plants need to thrive. Some plants, like dandelions, are tolerant of a wide variety of conditions, while others, such as orchids, have very specific requirements in order to grow successfully. Before spending time, effort, and money attempting to grow a new plant in a garden, do some research to learn about the conditions that a particular plant needs to grow properly.
Environmental factors play a key role in the proper growth of plants. Some of the essential factors that influence this natural process are as follows:
1. Length of Day
The amount of time between sunrise and sunset is the most critical factor in regulating vegetative growth, blooming, flower development, and the initiation of dormancy. Plants utilize increasing day length as a cue to promote their growth in spring, while decreasing day length in fall prompts them to prepare for the impending cold weather. Many plants require specific day length conditions in order to bloom and flower.
Light is the energy source for all plants. Cloudy, rainy days or any shade cast by nearby plants and structures can significantly reduce the amount of light available to the plant. In addition, plants adapted to thrive in shady spaces cannot tolerate full sunlight. In general, plants will only survive where adequate sunlight reaches them at levels they are able to tolerate.
Plants grow best within an optimal range of temperatures. This temperature range may vary drastically depending on the plant species. Some plants thrive in environments where the temperature range is quite wide; others can only survive within a very narrow temperature variance. Plants can only survive where temperatures allow them to carry on life-sustaining chemical reactions.
Plants differ by species in their ability to survive cold temperatures. Temperatures below 60°F injure some tropical plants. Conversely, arctic species can tolerate temperatures well below zero. The ability of a plant to withstand cold is a function of the degree of dormancy present in the plant, its water status, and its general health. Exposure to wind, bright sunlight, or rapidly changing temperatures can also compromise a plant’s tolerance to the cold.
A plant’s ability to tolerate heat also varies widely from species to species. Many plants that evolved to grow in arid, tropical regions are naturally very heat tolerant, while sub-arctic and alpine plants show very little tolerance for heat.
Different types of plants have different water needs. Some plants can tolerate drought during the summer but need winter rains to flourish. Other plants need a consistent supply of moisture to grow well. Careful attention to a plant’s need for supplemental water can help you to select plants that need a minimum of irrigation to perform well in your garden. If you have poorly drained, chronically wet soil, you can select garden plants that naturally grow in bogs, marshlands, and other wet places.
7. Soil pH
A plant root’s ability to take up certain nutrients depends on the pH—a measure of the acidity or alkalinity—of your soil. Most plants grow best in soils that have a pH between 6.0 and 7.0. Ericaceous plants, such as azaleas and blueberries, need acidic soils with a pH below 6.0 to grow well. Lime can be used to raise the soil’s pH, and materials containing sulfates, such as aluminum sulfate and iron sulfate, can be used to lower the pH. The solubility of many trace elements is controlled by pH, and plants can only use the soluble forms of these important micronutrients.