This Month On The Homestead: Project Perennial Food
I’m thrilled to report that it did NOT snow during the month of May. It’s the little victories we live for around here. Spring’s tendrils took hold, tentative at first given the frozen earth they were supplanting. Slowly, crocuses poked up through still-snowy ground.
Next, daffodils made a slightly more confident approach and finally, yellow and orange globe flowers busted out with wild abandon. And then lilacs! Oh the lilacs! As snow lost its grip, grass staked a claim and green became the new white.
By the end of the month, our view from the porch was of so much jungle green you’d think winter never existed, save the fact that our snowshoes still sat in the front hall, silent beacons marking time until they’d again be employed daily. There was barely a week between snow clearing and grass cutting, so short was our interlude between seasons this year.
If you’re just tuning in, this is a recurring series in which I document each month of our lives out here on our 66-acre Vermont homestead. After leaving urban Cambridge, MA in May 2016 to chart this wholly different life, we’re experiencing a constant learning curve of exploration (and plenty of stupid novice moments). Check out last month’s installment here and enjoy the best and worst (ok, mostly the worst) moments of our first year on the homestead here. Wondering if it’s less expensive to live rurally? Check out: City vs. Country: Which Is Cheaper? The Ultimate Cost Of Living Showdown.
Project Perennial Food
One of our chief, top, preeminent goals for our property is to plant and nurture perennial foods. A perennial is a plant that over winters and comes back every spring, as opposed to an annual, which is a plant that must be planted anew every spring. Given this lighter workload on the gardener, you can see why we’re so interested in perennials. We have a longterm vision for our land to serve as a source of sustenance and perennial foods are one aspect of that dream.
We are wildly fortunate that previous owners of our property planted ten apple trees, three plum trees, two beds of asparagus, and a row of rhubarb, which are key pillars of our perennial stock. This year, we decided to get serious about another fabulous perennial: berries!! Our land is now poised to serve as a veritable berry utopia in a few years.
From Weeds To Berries
In pursuit of our goal to grow mostly food (as opposed to flowers and other non-edibles such as grass), we transformed a massive, overgrown, derelict flower bed overrun with weeds–some of which stretched six feet tall–into a berry patch. Turning this bed was a multi-part, multi-year project:
- First, we cut it with a bladed trimmer to hack all the weeds down to a reasonable height. We didn’t want to bring the tractor and brush hog in there because we didn’t know what was under all those weeds and didn’t want to break the brush hog on an errant stump or rock.
- Next, we burned the trimmings.
- Then, last fall we tilled the bed with the tractor to break up the root systems of all weeds involved. We timed this tilling to take place right before the ground froze in the hopes that it would disrupt the plant growing cycle.
- This month, there was lots of weed re-sprout, but much less than previously. Mr. FW tilled the patch twice this spring: once immediately after the ground unfroze and again after the weeds sprouted.
After decimating the weed population in this garden bed, we then moved on to testing the soil. Blueberries require acidic soil and we had a hunch that our soil was likely somewhat acidic because we have a few wild blueberry bushes in our yard.
We performed a soil test using this kit, which revealed that our soil is acidic, but not acidic enough for blueberries. And so, we amended the soil with sulfur to increase its acidity.
Next Mr. FW built raised mound beds, by hand with a shovel, for each individual blueberry plant. They look kind of like mini-volcanos of dirt with little bowls shaped into the top. At long last, it was time to plant!! Mr. FW planted 28 blueberry bushes (purchased from Indiana Berry) of four different varieties, which are scheduled to produce berries at different intervals throughout the summer. If his calculations are correct, we’ll have fresh blueberries for several months straight! Also in this bed are three Saskatoon berry bushes, three honeyberry bushes, and three currant bushes.
Now it was time for sheet mulching. Mr. FW laid cardboard on the ground around each plant as a weed barrier and layered woodchips and mulch on top of that. Finally, he built a 5 foot tall welded wire fence around the berry garden to keep deer and critters (including our very own children) at bay.
This berry patch, which measures roughly 150 feet x 80 feet, is a longterm strategy for us and all of these plants will hopefully produce their first fruits in two years and then really ramp up berry production in about 4 or 5 years. Our thinking is that our girls will be ages 4 and 6 when the berries produce in a major way and can be champion mini berry pickers!
Plums, Cherries, and Apples!
Rounding out our perennial orchard are our three plum trees, ten apple trees (plus tons of wild apples lining our woods), and our newly planted cherry bushes. As I detailed here, Mr. FW pruned the apple trees in the early spring as they must be pruned before their leaves come in. This month, we pruned the plum trees and also set up a branch rehabilitation project. Fruit trees, such as plums and apples, can be trained to grow outward–as opposed to straight up–which facilitates better fruit production and easier fruit picking. You can accomplish this through a combination of pruning and branch training.
We also read that plum trees that grow straight up take a lot longer to produce fruit. By bending the branches when they’re young, you can encourage fruiting earlier in the tree’s life and have fruit in an easier to reach place. Bending the branches produces a hormonal change in the tree that will theoretically encourage earlier fruiting. To train the branches out, Mr. FW tied heavy gauge fencing wire around each branch and tethered them to large rounds of firewood on the ground serving as weights. He employed the same system on one of the apple trees that has a proclivity for growing up as opposed to out.
Next up, Mr. FW used the tractor to till a patch of grass to turn it into a mini cherry bush orchard. All part of our longterm goal to decrease our useless plants (hello, grass) and increasing our edible plants! We planted two Juliet cherry bushes and two Carmine Jewel cherry bushes–purchased from Honey Berry USA–both of which are variants of bush cherries bred to be sweeter and survive cold winters (hooray!). He then constructed small wire fences around each bush. Completing our new fruit orchard work, Mr. FW sheet mulched the whole lot, by which I mean he laid down cardboard and covered it with mulch and woodchips.
After completing all of this perennial berry work, we turned our attention to our annual veggie garden! Oh bounty of fresh vegetables that we enjoy munching all summer and preserving for the winter months. May is a prep month for veggies as it’s still too cold to actually put any of them into the ground.
First up is tilling. Last year, the veggie garden–which was formerly a patch of grass–had long, narrow mounded raised beds, which worked OK, but wasn’t ideal. This year, Mr. FW decided to make larger mounds so that we could put more plants in each bed and have smaller walking paths. Our larger walking paths last year seemed like wasted space and lots of grass sprouted up between each veggie row.
To help combat weeds, Mr. FW double tilled the garden–once in early spring and once in late May. Then, he dug out walkways and mounded the beds, which are 4 feet wide by 20 feet long with one foot walkways between each bed. Hopefully this bed design will work better and be permanent so that we don’t have to till and re-make beds every year. Now, he’s waiting for the weeds to sprout and then he’ll employ our flame weeder to flame the weeds before planting the veggies (stay tuned for the June installment for a rundown of flame weeding!).
Mr. FW also built a 5 foot tall welded wire fence around the veggie garden in a valiant effort to keep out the wildlife. Last year, as you may recall, we utilized a minimal fencing solution of fishing line strung between fence posts. This nominal fence actually worked until the very end of the summer when our deer friends ascertained the flimsy nature of the fence and charged on through to chomp all of our remaining kale and chard. We decided to enact a more robust fence this year in the hopes of preserving the harvest. Now if a moose wanders through, all bets are off. But we hope this’ll keep out our more frequent deer visitors.
We also started cucumbers, chard, and snap peas indoors this month. Last year we direct sowed the chard (which means we planted seeds straight into the ground) and this year we started the seeds to see if this is a better approach. The challenge with direct sowing chard is that we had a tough time telling the tiny chard plants apart from the pernicious weeds! Planting larger chard should help differentiate it from weeds.
After starting veggie seeds indoors–and allowing them to grow under our grow lamp and atop these heating mats–they need to experience life in the great outdoors in a process called “hardening off.” The mini plants need to become accustomed to outdoor temperatures, wind, rain and bugs, and so they spend little bits of time each day outside on the porch. After awhile, they’re allowed to have overnights on the porch in order to acclimate to our colder nighttime temperatures. Soon they’ll all go into the ground! But for now, there’s a plethora of little veggie starts hanging out in their little pots (many of which are recycled yogurt and cottage cheese containers) on our porch. Check out this post for full rundown of how to start seeds indoors.
As I alluded to the other week, our dear mailbox met a rather inglorious (and permanent) end at the hands of a snowplow this winter. Our snows are so deep–not to mention ice-laden–that our aging mailbox and post succumbed to the snow flung by a snow plow driving down our road. It wasn’t a fixable situation as the entire box flew off of the post and the post itself shattered in fantastic form. This mailbox and post were both on life support before this snow plow incident, so we knew replacement would be in our near future. The snowplow death knell merely hastened the process. In the hopes of creating a more permanent mailbox situation, Mr. FW poured concrete for the post and affixed our brand new mailbox on top.
In final deference to our newly minted season, we swapped the porch. It’s always a great guess as to when we should swap for spring since it entails removing all of our firewood that’s stored on the porch, which means no more fires in the woodstove (well, not easily anyway). We made the call in mid-May and relocated all the firewood, replacing it with our outdoor table and chairs. Next up, the sleds were sequestered in the barn to make way for the baby pool and outdoor toys. We swept the porch, set up the grill, and made way for halcyon summer days of partial outdoor living. I then cleaned out the woodstove and actually cleaned underneath it, unearthing a season’s worth of dust and dirt. Shameful I tell you.
Monthly Harvest Check
Not too much to harvest yet, but May brings the rhubarb and the asparagus! We ate asparagus daily for a few days and then, the harvest was over. There never seems to be enough asparagus even though we have two beds worth. The apple and plum trees both blossomed and set quite a bit of fruit!
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Onward to June, frugal comrades!
How was May on your own personal homestead?
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