The Land Calls – But Are You Ready…

Many people feel the call of the land.  For some it is a home coming, returning to the place they were raised. For others it is a need to reconnect with nature and ground themselves. Many more wish to regain control of their lives, their food, even their air and water. 

Knowing why you feel the call is the first step on your journey back to the land. It may change as you grow; a homecoming might morph into a return to land-based living. A small farm might slowly be regenerated back into native forest. As long as you understand why you need to go back to the land, it will be a move that is right for you. 

If you are not sure why, look at your life now.  

Do you make time to go camping, tramping in the bush or spend all day at the beach?   

Do you visit your family home/land at every opportunity? 

Do you spend your free time gardening, with animals or in the kitchen preserving or preparing homecooked food for your family? 

Perhaps you hunt, fish or simply like to chill watching the birds or the stars in the night sky? 

These are your interests and if your land reflects these interests, it will be home. If you try to live a life which is not right for you, chances are you will not be happy on your land. Many ‘lifestyle blocks’, off grid havens or small rural homesteads resell within a few years as people realise this was not what they wanted. Sometimes that means moving to a larger property but often it is a return to urban living. By facing up to and really focusing on what makes you tick, this can hopefully be avoided.  

But there are other matters to consider, location being a very important one. Will you still have to work or be close to work? Can you find enough work near the land, work from home or make enough income from your land to not have to ‘go’ to work?  

School aged children can influence this too, with proximity to school or school transport. Homeschooling is a great solution to this; a lot of parents are now choosing to educate their children themselves.  

But the most confronting issue in a rural location is isolation. Can you cope with not seeing another person for days or weeks on end or do you need a more social environment like a village or closer community?  

We live on a gravel road with just one other occupied house, an hour from the nearest small town. Our neighbour’s are 2.5 km away and unless the bee farm or grazing farmers have work down our road the only vehicles that travel our road are us, the postie (3 days a week) and the occasional tourist. We can go weeks or months with no visitors, our only social interaction being weekly trips town, occasional chats with neighbours (talking 15 km radius here) phone calls and social media. It suits us, it’s quiet and remotish, a haven from the outside world. But we have people who come here and they can’t handle it. No shop just down the road, no takeaways, no cell phone coverage, the moreporks are too loud… It’s just not for them. 

We moved here from a village, neighbours walking their dogs, primary school across the road, dairy industry all around. While we had some good neighbours, often you felt exposed and just wanted to hide away somewhere peaceful.  

Which does in fact raise another issue, noise… 

We may imagine a quiet spot, the rustling of trees and the songs of the birds. But reality is often the sounds of country work, motorbikes, side by sides, tractors, chainsaws. Stock and forestry trucks rumbling by. Bulls bellowing, sheep baaing, goats can make a hell of a racket! Obviously, the further remote you are the less the vehicle noise, but the more likely you are to have the goats maaing and stags roaring. Which means the more likely you are to have hunters too. While there are rules around hunting, if you choose to live in a remote bush location chances are there will be gunshots. If this is likely to frazzle your nerves it is something to consider. 

There is also the belief that living off the land and off grid will means very low bills. This is true to a point. Bit what you have to consider is fuel and vehicle costs to go anywhere, to bring materials in for building etc. Tradesmen costs become horrendous. Remote small towns are generally limited in resources and therefore it can cost more to get the things you need. But most importantly that you are responsible for your infrastructure and the repairing of it should anything go wrong. Learning basic ‘fix it’ skills before you move away from the convenience of town is probably one of the most cost saving steps you can take. There are a lot of electrical jobs you can do, learning how to wire up lighting and plug circuits etc. Understanding water collection and basic plumbing. Building, construction, making concrete and fencing. Drainage, irrigation and grey water dispersal. The more you learn the easier and cheaper your move will be. If you are aiming for simple off grid, experience not having hot water, heating your water on a gas ring or fire in pots. Try cooking just on a camp stove, gas ring or woodfire. Turn off what you don’t need, live without a fridge and a washing machine for a week or two. Give yourself a chance to experience little or no power before you take the plunge into off grid living. If you are looking at moving to a tiny house, move into your lounge and kitchen for a week, a month, see if it can work for you. 

Living off your land can also throw up challenges, if you are reliant on it for food then that is your primary role on your property, to make sure that food is there. Even if that means you are stuck eating silverbeet and pork for a week because that’s all that’s around. You see all these stories of people living off the land, or working towards it and what you need to understand is we all have times when there is just not that much in the garden. It could be the season or crops have been damaged by bad weather, drought may have dried up the garden so you struggle to grow anything. Or life simply threw you a curve ball and things didn’t get planted on time. We can get around this by having food stores, preserving the gluts and creating diversity in our food sources. But sometimes we just need to buy more food, and sometimes we need to buy more livestock food. 

If you are hoping to raise livestock or just have your own ‘petting zoo’, you need to understand how many animals you can have. It is easy to over stock when the grass is growing well and find yourself short of grass as the growth slows. Best way to sort this is to talk to locals with livestock or just build it up slowly. But most importantly just be prepared to sell or put in the freezer some stock if you have overestimated your grass availability. If you have never raised animals before than I suggest you read this article, https://fodderfarm.co.nz/2018/12/15/where-theres-live-stock-theres-dead-stock/ 

I raise all these points not to put you off making your move back to the land. It is more about increasing your preparedness so that your move will be what is right for you and your family. We have lived through many difficulties on our journey and have even had to return to urban living for a time. We have struggled with little funds to make necessary repairs and improvements to cruddy old houses. Lived with no stove, no fridge, no bathroom. Struggled through droughts on limited tank water and watched our vege garden die. But we have learnt every step of the way and will never stop learning. 

The land calls us and we listen… 

Cleaning up the Aftermath

Restoring pasture land following a pine forest harvest.

Our small block of pines was harvested over the winter, not ideal timing by any stretch of the imagination. But the combined factors of it only being a few hectares and a long way from anywhere meant our options were limited.

As homesteaders on approximately 6 hectares of land we have a close connection to our land, but the pine trees felt like interlopers. They should never have been part of this landscape, planted on some of the few gentle sloping areas in a steep rugged farming and bush valley. In our wet environment they were becoming hazards, with trees falling or breaking after every rain or wind event. As they were at harvest age, we decided it was better to remove them and repurpose the land for a more beneficial use.

Initially we were told the harvest would happen in late spring, but after many date changes it was not until the following winter that the harvesters arrived. The result of heavy machinery on sodden land in high rainfall country was massive track rutting which filled with water every time it rained. Branches and even whole logs were churned into the mud, often to provide footing for the machines. Numerous breakdowns and another lockdown delayed the job but by early September they were gone leaving us with the cleanup.

Mud, mud and more mud.

Unsure of how much, if anything, we would receive from the harvest and having seen the damage done to the land by the machines, David began the cleanup by hand, starting by clearing a small spring fed stream which ran across the paddock. The slash had choked the flow and the whole centre of the paddock was a sodden mess. Getting the stream flowing again allowed much of the area to dry out enough to work in it. He learnt fast that it was best to wear work gloves after getting several large splinters up under his finger nails on the first day of clearing. David then moved on to the area where the old man pines had been dropped the slash was deep on the ground, masses of pinecones spread through the debris made walking even more hazardous. We were offered the use of a tractor but it was still too wet to get the tractor in the paddock. The job was an exhausting and relentless one. Branch after branch had to be released from the tangled mass or pulled from the still wet ground. Where the harvester had sat and stripped piles of logs, the pine needles and small debris formed thick mats up to a metre deep, often with large branches or short logs buried in it. In these thick areas David built the fire stacks, better to burn it out then try to pull it apart.   In areas which had become boggy, logs were squashed into the earth to create ’platforms’ so the heavy machinery wouldn’t end up sinking belly deep in the mud. Seeing all this made the plan of growing pasture in the paddock seem a very distant dream.

David building ‘pires’ turns out flat stacking actually burns better than this method.

We had wanted to biochar as much wood as possible but the reality was to remove the large firewood and just burn anything else. Leaving the slash to break down was not an option as we are returning most of the land to pasture as it was pre pines. If you were planning on replanting in tree species this level of slash removal would not be necessary as they can be planted amongst the slash, but for our purposes it was to be cleared back to the soil. Draining the sitting water from the massive ruts and cleaning the small spring fed steam helped to get the water off the land and dry up many areas. But as the sun came out the earth dried into a solid almost concrete like mass with branches and logs sticking out. Piles of slash dotted one end of the paddock and days were spent burning the pyres and pulling more surrounding slash on top. Green piles were slow and difficult to burn, with whole days spent maintaining them. Dry piles burnt hot and fast but often tried to escape across the bark, needle and twig littered ground. Huge piles of firewood grew in the paddock, short logs and stumps cut into rings; large branches cut to more manageable lengths. It took about a week to mostly clear about ¼ of an acre and have it ready to reseed with pasture.  As each area was cleared seed was spread, the aim being to establish cover as fast as possible. Partially to avoid any soil loss and further damage in our high rainfall area and also because any grass which was in these paddocks was gone and our grazing was now severely limited.

Firewood stacks piling up.

Hand clearing several hectares of pine slash is a depressing job. A whole day of slogging, exhausting labour and you look up to still see a vast expanse of mess. It gives you a true appreciation of the toil of the first settlers in this landscape, as they cleared the land for their homes and farms. But there are times of enjoyment, a cuppa in the midst of it admiring the stunning rugged views now evident all around us, talking to a small robin as it flits around finding bugs in the freshly turned pine needle litter.  Listening to the river below and the quiet roar of waterfalls cascading into the ravine.  The valley feels less closed in now, we can see down it to the neighbours hut perched on their hilltop 2km away and back up to the DOC land past the neighbouring bee farm.

We have left the stumps in the ground as the work involved to remove them is huge. As we get the more pressing jobs sorted, like the rest of the slash cleared and pasture and fences in place, we will look a dealing with the stumps. We have a number of options and will trial a few to see what works best for us within our environment. Those in the way of any farm tracks will be dug out but the majority will be left to rot with various methods use to accelerate the process.

Pasture growing around the stumps

With about half the big paddock cleared and pasture sown, David moved to a smaller paddock for a bit of variety and a change of view. It was here that another forestry crew approached him about access across our land to avoid using a small bridge on our narrow gravel road. We had been wary about having more heavy machinery over our land as we had witnessed the impact they can have.  But the offer to clean up our final paddock and create access down the steep banks to our creek was a light at the end of the tunnel after months of hard labour. They brought in two diggers which had been creating tracks through the large forestry block opposite us. Two days later the paddock was raked with 3 mountainous piles of slash. But the majority of the paddock was now able to be sown and the next rainy day we spread a mixed pasture seed over the freshly cleared land. The creek was cleared of debris from our harvest and the steep banks replanted with natives. An old hand dug culvert cave was uncovered, hidden beneath the punga and mahoe. This is an amazing piece of history and more evidence of the hard work of the early settlers on this land. It is a cave dug through rock to divert the flow of the stream, about 20ms long. They would then full in the small ravine to push the water through the culvert and remove the need to build a bridge, how long this worked for I wouldn’t know as we now have a small bridge spanning the stream and the culvert is now home to hundreds of giant weta.

The hand dug culvert full of wetas.

We sowed the first grass seed in late September, the cold temperatures meant a long wait to for the seed to sprout but by late December the area was covered in better pasture than before the pine harvest. Where the piles were burnt the grass is lush and dark green, the potash having boosted its growth. In other areas the endemic lotus is in dominance, but its use as a rapid ground cover in the poorer condition areas is much appreciated. The weeds are there too, inkweed, betony, foxglove, thistles, blackberry and the ferns which thrived under the pines, but David walks the land with the weed whacker taking the tops off. With no fences in place the feral goats have been grazing the land too, which is helping keep the blackberry in check. Almost the entire roadside fence line had to be removed as the skid sites had to move due to the wet ground. We had seen the tangled mess of fence left if the forestry were to remove a fence so David had gone through in advance and rolled back the wire and battens. The posts and gate were removed too and stacked out of the way, saving and reusing as much as possible will save us hundreds if not thousands of dollars in the long run.

Levelling by hand.

The two main skid sites were left a mess of churned topsoil, clay, volcanic ash and pine debris. The massive metre deep ruts were full of manky water and in many places the old fence line was nonexistent. The use of a neighbours tractor for a day helped level out some areas but with bald tires it was a risky business in the slippery areas, so David abandoned that and much of the leveling was carried out with a shovel. I’m pretty sure the farmer who grazed the bee farm up the road must have thought we were crazy by now… but when it won’t stop raining and drizzling long enough to dry out, things just need to get done. We had some old crappy hay so tried spreading this over the grass seed on one of the skid sites once it was leveled and just sowed the other. The ground with the loose hay cover grew much better grass which could be attributed to the retaining of moisture within the mulch and the extra seed contained in the hay. But another area where we had been feeding out hay and silage prior to the harvest was also producing a better coverage and quality of pasture.

This area had previously been fed out on and grew the best pasture.

We believe that the use of the hay helps to change the ‘signals’ of the soil to the production of pasture species.  Seeds will sprout when the conditions are right and pasture species prefer a 50/50 Bacteria/Fungi ratio, whereas trees (in our case the pines) do well in a higher fungal soil. By adding in organic matter of which you are wanting to grow our theory is you adapt the soil to your needs. In areas where these methods weren’t used, we had a more sporadic pasture and a higher occurrence of weed species, especially the woody weeds as they would naturally occur in the higher fungal areas left by tree removal. Another interesting study that we came across was that pines do not actually create an acidic soil, though it is their preferred growing condition. The acidity in the landscape is actually the result of damp shady conditions which the close planting of a plantation in a wet environment creates. This is the same effect created by our native forests. So, the theory may be extrapolated that by removing the conditions which create acidity and by supporting the earth natural processes, nature will start the process to balance the PH to suit the existing plant species, in our case pasture…

Grass seed sprouting where the hay was fed out.

As I write this (December 2021) David has been working on the restoring the fence line on the large paddock. It has been three months since we sowed some of this area and its now grazable. While the paddock still requires a lot of work to finish the cleanup there is now much more and better-quality pasture than pre harvest. We are finally reaching a stage in this whole process where the weight of it is lifting. What have we learnt from clearing by hand? Be prepared for it to take many years if wishing to return the land completely to pasture, not because it takes that long to establish pasture but because of the shear amount of exhausting work involved. Once an area is clear pasture can be established in as little as three months. We recommend that clearing by hand is only undertaken if you have a small amount to clear (under a hectare) or a team of willing workers.

The machines made short work of clearing paddocks, but is it the best option for the land…

The pros and cons

Hand Clearing

Pros

Smaller piles to burn

Minimal soil disturbance

Builds lots of muscle, stamina and endurance.

Low cost

Cons

Very hard work

Slow and labour intensive

Wears through lots of work gloves

Very hard on your body, need to pace yourself.

Machine Clearing

Pros

Fast

Surface is left in a reasonable tilth to sow into.

Can have landscaping done at the same time, e.g. shaping for water run off etc.

Cons

Scary huge piles of slash

Churns soil in wet areas

Compaction – affects deeper layers

Cost – can cost $1000 plus per day per machine, plus transportation costs for getting machines to and from the site.

The final area still to be cleared at the top of the big paddock

July 2022 update

After a long hot dry summer and autumn David has been back in the large paddock clearing the slash. It has been too dry to burn anything and after a brushfire, which was possibly caused by wind blowing powerlines into an old man pine, we have been wary of fires in our remote area. But we are back into open fire season now, the dry being broken by nearly two weeks of rainy weather.

Progress has been much faster, even with David having to dig logs from the wet ground. The green needles are long gone and with them a lot of the weight he had to contend with when the slash was fresh. The soil has changed too, soon after the harvest it was a puggy sticky churned mess. But now it crumbles and the needles and smaller debris have broken down giving the soil a nice dark colour in many places. While there is still a lack of worm life evident, there is a large amount of fungi already working to break down the logs and stumps. This should mean there is a high fungal load in the soil and with the animals grazing the bacteria should be building too. Hopefully this will help balance the soil into a more suitable environment for growing pasture. That said the areas which are already established in pasture coped reasonably well with our prolonged dry summer. In the large paddock there is a high water table due to the springs which flow from the hill across the road, this has certainly helped maintain the pasture in this paddock. The paddock which the machines cleared has not fared so well, while it has a cover of chicory and plantain, the young grass did not survive the assault of the neighbours cattle and the lack of rain. This paddock is much drier as most of the hill runoff is diverted through a small gully along side the road. We will need to use pasture species which can handle a drier environment here. We also think that while the machinery left the surface in a decent tilth that the compaction layer is quite shallow and possibly the scraping action of the machines has actually worsened the compaction. The plants which have grown there this summer are all deep-rooted, mining or pioneer plants, chicory, plantain, inkweed, thistles, nightshade and seedling pines. Weed management has been an ongoing issue especially in this paddock. We are hoping as we develop the pastures and change the soil fungi/bacteria ratios that these weed species will disappear.

Feeding out on the bare spots

The area where we had fed out hay on last winter/spring are coping well under the grazing pressure. So, we are utilising the locally grown hay, which we feed out to the stock daily, on the newly cleared land. This should hopefully reseed the land with a mixture of locally adapted pasture plants. The animal’s ‘hoof’ the seed into the ground, giving it a better chance of actually germinating and developing a good root hold. The residue hay will help change the land balance towards pasture growth as it decomposes. If you were trying to regenerate pasture without animals, spreading old hay, silage or haylage should hopefully spread the mixed seed and compost matter to enable faster regrowth.

Soon after harvest August 2021
December 2021 the fence is back in place and grass growth is good around the cleared areas.
June 2022, most of this area of the paddock is cleared. grass growth has slowed right off over winter.

The Fat of the Land

Home grown animal fats.

Fat is an essential part of your nutritional needs. The easiest way to produce these fats on your land is through saturated animal fats. The rise in popularity of the Keto and Paleo diets has seen resurgence in the amount of people choosing to consume highly nutritious fats. Primarily these fats are animal sourced, tallow, lard, duck, goose and chicken fat, butter, but there is also coconut oil and olive oil (Olive oil is lower in saturated fat and should be for uncooked use only). There are many studies which show that cooking with these fats is much healthier than the highly processed vegetable oils most people favour. Butter is considered a wonder food, high in fat-soluble vitamins, A, D, K and E and has many other benefits.

The emergence of many studies which are pro saturated fat has led many, many people to question the medical worlds stance on it. This includes promoting substances like margarine which many studies now show is detrimental to your health. What an upside-down world we live in…

Here’s a couple of You Tube videos to explain this further…

Butter vs Margarine, Dr Ken Berry https://youtu.be/P-Ma-r3YPYQ

SATURATED FAT DANGERS + Q&A https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DI92VHEmSb0

We will stick to our home grown natural saturated fats from animals raised in a clean environment.

Here’s a break down of the various animals fats and terms…

Lard is pork fat; it is stable and a preferred fat for frying. Lard can come from any part of the pig that has a high concentration of fatty tissue. Leaf lard is a high-grade lard which comes from the cavity fat surrounding the kidneys and loin. Often unrendered lard is added to other meats in sausage making to increase the fat content. Rendered Leaf lard is a popular fat for pie crusts and lard was used in many countries as a spread on bread.

Pork being butchered, chops and leaf lard

Tallow is the fat of beef and mutton, very stable and can be used for frying. Tallow is usually rendered from the suet fat of the animal.

Dripping is the fat left after roasting. It is poured into a storage container (which was often a tin can or mug) and kept for cooking other foods.

Bacon fat is often saved from cooking bacon and used to cook other foods as it imparts the bacon flavour into them.

Suet is the cavity fat of the animal which surrounds the kidneys etc. it has a high smoke point and is very stable. The raw suet is chopped up finely and slowly melted at low heat. Once melted it is strained and put into a sterilised jar, can be stored in a cool place for a year. Suet can be used for frying, deep frying or baking, it is traditionally used in short crust pastry, baked puddings and dumplings.

Rendering lard in the oven

Duck and Goose fat is semi solid at room temperature, quite stable. With a high smoke point they are good for frying and sautéing and have a rich flavour. Rendering can be achieved by slow roasting a whole duck or goose and cutting or pricking the skin often to release more fat. Strain the fat and store in a sterilized jar in the fridge or freeze for up to a year.

Chicken fat or Schmaltz is widely used for frying, stews and roasts or as a spread on bread in Kosher kitchens. It is made from the rendered fat of chicken either from slowly cooking the skin and fat or pouring off the fat from roasting chicken. Another method is to skim the schmaltz from the surface of broth once it has cooled. Strain the fat and store in a sterilized jar in the fridge for up to 6 months or freeze for up to a year.

Caul or lace fat, this is the fine webbing fat which covers the internal organs of animals such as sheep, pigs, cattle and deer etc. It can be removed carefully and is then washed by placing in a colander and thoroughly rinsing with cold water. If it retains a slight ‘innards’ smell the caul can be soaked in water with vinegar or lemon juice, then rinsed again. Dry the caul before using or freezing. Caul is used to wrap meat to retain moisture and shape, often used with ground or lean meat.

Rendered fat cooling in sterilised jars. The white is cooled, the yellowy jars are still warm.

Butter is made by churning cream until the fat separates from the buttermilk, it is then strained and washed to remove all trances of buttermilk. The butter fats are then salted if desired and “worked” or “patted” by pressing and kneading together. This process shapes the butter but also helps remove any residual buttermilk or water. Butter can be stored in the fridge for a couple of weeks, at room temp for a couple of days and for about 9 to 10 months if frozen. Make sure butter is well wrapped or in an airtight container to avoid taste contamination from strong smelling food like onions.

Making butter, the fat after straining and washing off the buttermilk

Ghee or clarified butter is produced by melting butter gently until the water content has evaporated and the solids have separated. The whey proteins will float and are skimmed off, the casein sinks and is left behind when the butterfat (Ghee) is poured off. Ghee has a higher smoke point than butter making it good for sautéing, it also has a much longer shelf life of approx. one year if stored under 21°C. With only negligible amounts of lactose and casein it is more acceptable to people who are intolerant of these components.

(Stable means the fat is not affected by oxidisation which is one of the main causes deterioration in food. Stable fat is solid at room temperature)

For more info on rendering fat and food preservation in fat…

Lard in the Larder

Fat cut up for rendering

The Upcycled Wooden Worm Farm.

Vermicast is the black gold of gardening and farming. Worms have been processing waste and building soil forever, so it makes sense that what they produce is what’s best for the soil and plant life. Worms concentrate the nutrients from organic ‘waste’ into forms which are much more available to plants. Vermicast also increases the water and nutrient holding capacities of the soil, improves soil texture and helps protect against diseases.  But they need a varied diet in order to produce a rich vermicast suited to your needs. High in manure and it is more bacterial, high in woody waste and it is more fungal. While the higher bacterial may work well for your pastures the higher fungal is better for orchards.

Read more here The Benefits of Worms and Vermicast

The finished worm farm with high tech brick closures 😉

Many worm farms are geared towards the collection of ‘worm wee’ but we use a different method and collect vermicast only. This style of worm farm allows the worms access to the ground. Which means if environmental factors are not optimal for the worms they can retreat to the soil. This could be high temperatures, too dry, too wet or lack of food, it is essentially a survival system for the worms. As ‘worm wee’ is basically leachate from your worm farm (which could mean there is too much moisture in it) you are actually better of harvesting the worm castings (vermicast) and if a liquid fertiliser is required soaking this in water to create a vermicast extract.

Easy access to vermicast. (this lot is partially processed only, as its from the old worm farm)

There is also no plastic involved in the construction of our worm farm, in fact it is built almost entirely from upcycled or reclaimed resources. The timber is pallet wood, screws and hinges came from our local dump shop and the chain from the stash in the shed.  Being untreated timber, it does have a shorter life span, but this also means no contact with treated timber to the worms and vermicast. Previous bins have lasted well over two or more years, so considering it has cost us next to nothing that’s good value in my books.

Our first worm farm in this style 2018, was still in use when we moved two years later.

This model has a few improvements on the previous ones. A hinged lid with a chain for ease of use and larger access at the base for removal of vermicast.  The bracing must be on the outside so the organic matter can move easily down the bin as any ledges within the bin can create blockages which stop the organic matter dropping to the bottom.  It is also larger to allow for greater vermicast creation as we intend to use it as a full property fertiliser. The design is pretty straight forward and flexible depending on resources. This one is approximately 1 metre tall and 80 cm x 68 cm wide.

Building the long sides.
The shorter access sides have their braces off set for joining to the long sides.
Joining the sides together, the off set bracings are screwed together and then trimmed.
Extra bracing is added to the base for strength and footings
A hinged lid is added.
The chain stops the lid from going to far back.
The worm farm is put in place and the contents of the old worm farm are transferred in.
Organic ‘waste’ is put in the top and the worms process it into vermicast which is removed via the bottom access panels.

The Survival Garden

We’ve been thinking about the garden a lot of late, about how it works for us, what grows well here and what do we really want to utilise the space for. Seed saving, time saving and the best plants for optimum nutrition with minimum inputs are important factors. Looking at what and how much we actually eat from it has been interesting too. All of this is coming together in a rather major change of tactic within the main vegetable garden, but also spreading out into the orchard and berry gardens. Plus having finally built our large tunnel house this too will change the growing abilities of our garden. Life is often busy and with the vege garden now reaching about 200m2 of growing space it sometimes gets a bit overwhelming. How can we simplify the food production to work with our time and energy?

The vege garden plan

A few of our key observations this year have been that brassicas have been more hassle than they’re worth.  Between the white cabbage butterflies and the fact that they just don’t like growing here without a lot of pandering I just can’t be bothered with them. While our soil has improved dramatically there is still someway to go before it reaches a highly healthy alive state, so focusing on the plants which thrive here, or which will help enliven the soil makes more sense to us. The other issue I have with brassicas is the cross pollination which makes seed saving difficult. So, if we want to save true seeds, we can only have one variety flowering at a time. We like sauerkraut and fried cabbage so that means the humble cabbage leads the stakes there. Violet cauli would be a close second but I have accidentally fed our teen buggy brassicas too many times and now she won’t eat it. I’m not interested in constantly picking off caterpillars, having to buy BT (Bacillus thuringiensis a natural caterpillar killer) or having to use butterfly mesh cover the crops once they are big. We do use bird nets while crops are small, but once crops are big enough to handle the birds the nets or mesh just get in the way of weeding and harvesting etc. Cabbages tend to stay squatter and cover the ground better so nets could still work with these if necessary and once they have formed nice heads, they are less prone to caterpillars finding hiding places. One thing about brassicas though is that apparently their seed stays viable for several years so you could choose one variety to save seed from each year. You would have to not allow any other varieties to flower at the same time, therefore avoiding cross pollination. Though I’m not sure I’m that organised…

Cabbage

We are looking at other crops in the same way, pumpkins are notorious cross pollinators so choosing only one type from each species is necessary if we want to save true to type seed. This is fine for the Cucurbita maxima species as we are happy with just a Crown or a Triamble for our long keepers and then any Butternut for the C. moschata group it’s the C. pepo where we run into problems as this group contains courgettes, Kamokamo and the oilseed pumpkins, all of which have their place in our garden. To save true seed we need to either grow the plants a long way from each other (not really practical) or isolate flowers and hand pollenate. Other wise we will end up with mutant fruit, which could be fun or a complete waste of time and space. Still working on a plan for this issue…

Self-seeders tick a lot of boxes for us, they are self-proliferating, I don’t need to actively harvest, dry and store seed, they just appear enmass when the time is right. Because of this they are also acclimatised to our area and conditions so are less likely to suffer from pest issues. There is no garden prepping for them or planting to be done. This also leads into creating permanent growing spaces for these plants going against the crop rotation methodology and leaning more towards poly-cropping or mini ecosystems within the garden. An example would be a permanent salad bed where salad crops are allowed to set seed and apart from a bit of thinning if necessary, feeding when needed (like compost top ups or liquid feeds), removal of non-edibles and of course harvesting, the bed is left to cycle through the seasons. Miners lettuce, corn salad, and violas through the cooler months with heat loving crops like purslane, orach and magenta spreen emerging over the warmer months, but always with a base crop of lettuce and rocket and possibly some Asian greens (though these could mess with any brassica seed saving).

Miners lettuce self seeds readily.

Rocket is a great self seeder popping up all over the garden, we also have calendula, parsnips, cutting celery, leeks, perpetual spinach, violas, parsley, chives, garlic chives and other herbs. Of course there are the brassicas, Asian greens, turnip, mizuna, mustard, Bok choy and mutants from them too. There are also wild grown potatoes and the Jerusalem artichokes which spread themselves. If we allow these plants to seed into the surrounding garden bed, they establish themselves without interference from us. This could allow for better root establishment without the disturbance of transplanting, though thinning might be needed to allow plants to reach their full potential. However, this also allows for a chop/pull and drop mulch which feeds back into and protects the soil. If need be other plants can be planted into this mulch. The less time soil spends uncovered the better it is for the soil, utilising these self seeders as a cover crop prior to planting other crops would be a beneficial practice.  But just make sure you allow some healthy plants to complete their life cycle to allow for the next generation of plants.

Leek seed head

There are some concerns about certain plants (tomatoes, potatoes, brassicas etc) growing repeatedly in the same bed but if your soil is alive and healthy and you allow other plants to establish around them there is no real reason to practice crop rotation. Diversity and soil health and life are better issues to focus on than rotation of mono crops. However, specialty cover crops can be used in between edible crops if needed as they can have different purposes. For example, mustard is said to be a fumigant, cleaning up disease issues in the soil. Or legumes which are the nitrogen fixers and are great before a heavy feeder crop. Cover crops are a great way to keep your soil covered and healthy over the winter months, they bring in more diversity and if left to flower can provide a nectar source at a time when not much is available. They can still be part of a permanent crop bed if they are cut and laid for mulch prior to any seasonal crop emerging or around any existing crops before the cover crops get too big.

Laying down a mixed cover crop before pumpkins are planted.

The idea of utilising permanent crop beds brings us to Perennial food plants. Asparagus immediately comes to mind as a permanent crop but there are so many other Edible Perennial Plants which can be utilised in the vege garden. These are generally easy care and provide more than food in your garden. Having areas where the ground is hardly disturbed apart from an occasional weeding allows a safe place for the underground life. These soil and plant critters, bacteria and fungi are all part of the ecosystem of your garden.  Allowing them safe havens within the garden protect them from the constant tilling and bare soil which many vege gardeners seem to favour. The more life you have in your soil the healthier and more nutritious your plants will be. Sure, you can grow beautiful big plants with well-manicured beds, fed with artificial fertilisers and any issues controlled with chemicals. But wouldn’t you rather care for your soil, the life within and around it and not have to buy so many inputs? What happens if for some reason you can’t get those inputs anymore? Its these issues which lead us to soil health by sourcing and nutrient recycling as much from our own property as possible. If we are to create a survival garden it needs to be able to do just that itself, survive off its own systems and not be reliant on false nutrition to grow. If left to its own devices a landscape will grow and evolve, it will move through many stages with the processes of life and death within the soil and the plants, cycling the nutrients to support growth. By allowing your garden to experience its own cycles of sprouting, growth, producing, seeding, dying and decay it creates an ecosystem. When you remove food from the garden you return the waste as compost, vermicast or manure to keep it as part of the cycle.

We also need to consider the ‘weeds’ in the garden, not the dock and buttercup they just need annihilating! (Unless you’re planning on making dock seed flour) But the dandelions, chickweed, puha, land cress, fathen, stinging nettle, purslane, plantain… these volunteer plants are also nutrient packed and super easy to grow. We really need to step away from the concept that what you buy in the supermarket are what veges you eat and grow. There are so many more options to full your tummies and many of them will grow regardless of what you do. The reality is that if you just let your backyard naturalise you could probably harvest greens all year round. Sometimes I walk through our garden and think what is ready, but there are always greens there they were just not planted by me. We delight in the massively healthy dandelions growing in the middle of a bed, there were none when we first came here. Now I see them popping up in the lawn too and the paddock with their sunny flowers and fluffy wishes. Plantain is now everywhere, but it was missing from the pastures before. We now have it throughout the garden, though more often harvested for the rabbit’s dinner, but I know if I need it its there and not just for eating but medicine too. Puha is a thriving spring leafy green and the little cress plants and chickweed make a great salad crop and ground cover under the bigger plants.

Chicory, dandelion and plantain.

Mix low growing plants with taller plants, deep rooting with shallow rooting, climbers with sturdy support plants, highly scented plants to block pests from smelling which plants to attack.  Companion planting has long been used for plant health, improved pollination and pest repelling.  But I struggle to remember more than the basics, like tomatoes and basil together.  I need to utilise this more as by mixing crops which support each other, such as leeks with carrots to prevent pest issues, cropping is improved while lessening our workload. Mixed plantings which are supportive of each other, and which have their own succession make a lot of sense to me. Late summer and autumn can become a muddle of trying to balance the late producing crops with the need to plant crops for winter eating. If a plant is still producing late in the season, I am loath to remove it because the space is needed for the next lot of crops. But if it can be trimmed (tomatoes) or moved aside onto the path (courgettes) then other plants can establish around it. When it has finally finished it can become mulch for the garden or be cut off at the base for composting, there is no need to remove the roots, just let them break down in the soil.

Violas, puha and fungi in the blueberry garden.

The inclusion of more beneficial flowering plants in the garden also makes for a pretty workspace. These beneficial companion plants generally fit into the self-seeding category too and can be utilised as living ground covers to support soil health, aid pollination and for their own edible or medicinal uses. Around our blueberries we have a living ground cover of violas and strawberries (both ‘normal’ and alpine) while we do have to weed it occasionally the garden generally looks good with the green of the strawberry leaves and the bright splashes of purple and yellow violas. This bed is also prolific with its fungi which is all part of the biodiversity. We actively encourage fungi in the garden with regular top ups of wood mulch on the paths and around perennial plants. We have also inoculated an area of the garden with King Stropharia mycelium an edible decomposer mushroom. While we are still waiting for the fruiting bodies (mushrooms) to appear the mycelium has spread throughout the whole area in an impressive white network of hyphae.

Mycelium in the garden

These fungi networks are one of the reasons why less disturbance of the soil is better for its health. Healthy soil is a thriving mass of life, tiny critters, earthworms, bacteria and fungi all entwined in the roots of the plants, the earth and the mulch surrounding them. This is another reason why we are loath to garden in a conventional way of bare soil, digging over beds and using any insecticides, fungicides or chemical fertilisers which kill the underground life rather than nurture it.

The survival garden is not just about us having a constant source of food it is about our soil’s survival too…

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