The Backyard Farming Connection

Doing Less Instead of More

winterhomestead

If you are at all part of the modern homesteading movement, you probably have a list of new things you would like to try: animals you want, crops you hope to plant, and skills you want to know.  While it is easy to get up on the roller coaster of doing more, in reality, choosing to homestead generally means the just the opposite.  Modern homesteading is far more about doing less than doing more.  

When you choose to engage in modern homesteading, you are consciously selecting what is most important to you, your family, your community and the earth.  You are moving away from the wants that control our lives and focusing more on the things you need.  In our daily lives, it easy to choose what we consider the easy route: throwing laundry in the dryer instead of air drying, buying an extra pair of shoes just because (even though you have 5 similar pairs), or grabbing a few processed foods from the store instead of making your own from scratch.  But if you pause to consider the hidden costs behind your choices, suddenly those choices aren’t really easy.

So what do we really need in life?  Of course we need food and shelter, and as humans we want to feel needed, valued and productive.  We need to feel that our actions, however small, truly matter.  Does choosing the easy route really meet those needs?  Now I will admit that from time to time, when the pile of laundry overwhelms me, I toss the wet clothes into the dryer instead of hanging them to dry.  But, what if I rethought my life? What if I decided that the million other things that occur in my life were less important than the simple act of hang drying my clothing?   

When you start to slow down your life and cut out the many things that are wants and not needs, your day suddenly opens up.  Just today, my husband and I were debating over whether to drive an extra 20 minutes to pick up bags for our vacuum.  It boiled down to 2 choices: drive and get the bags and use up time with the family and gas, or wait until we’re headed that way later this week and deal with a dirty house.  When we stepped back and looked at the big picture, at what really mattered, suddenly a little dirt on the floor seemed a small price to pay.   

Modern homesteading is not about doing more, it is about doing less.  It is about gaining perspective and consciously choosing a way of life.

How do you choose to do less by doing more in your backyard farm? 

Preparing for Weather Extremes on Your Backyard Farm

Preparing for weather extremes

No matter where you live, at some point, your homestead will experience weather extremes.While nothing can prevent a storm from passing through your area, keeping in mind possible or likely weather events when you plan your backyard farm will give you a greater level of success.   

To start, think about the weather in your area, and divide the following weather events up into 3 categories: Unlikely to occur, may occur, and likely to occur 
  • Hurricane/cyclone
  • Tornado
  • Flooding
  • Hail
  • Heavy/damaging Winds
  • Blizzard
  • Ice Storm
  • Drought
  • Heat Waves
  • Extreme Cold
Recurrence Intervals 
 
If you are looking for information on how often these events are likely to occur, you may come across information about recurrence intervals.  This is an average (based on past data) of how often this event is likely to occur.  You may see something called a 100 year flood, meaning that on average this flood occurs 1 every 100 years).  It is very important to remember that this does not mean that the flood occurs 1 time each 100 years.  You may experience 3 years in a row with a flood of this magnitude and not have another flood for 300 years.  Just because you experienced a 100 year drought this year, it does not mean you won’t experience one next year.  In fact, you may be more likely to experience one next year since the climatic elements that caused the drought may still be in place the following year.
 
General Preparation 
 
While many of these weather events take specific preparations, there are some general things you can do to prepare.  Here are a few items that will ensure you are better prepared for most weather events:
  • Assure that buildings and structures are sound, insulated where needed, and not overcrowded
  • Create drainage for areas that are likely to flood – especially places where animals live
  • Collect water in barrels, cisterns, or a pond
  • Plant a variety of crops, since certain types may survive specific weather event better than others
  • Have a generator on hand or another means to generate heat
  • Cut down or trim trees or branches that may fall on your home, barn, sheds, or garden
  • Prepare a disaster plan for when things go wrong
  • Consider which event occur most commonly in your area, and prepare for those events
Creating a Disaster Plan 
 
Create a plan for weather disasters so you are ready before the event arrives.  Despite improvements in forecasting, we all know they get it wrong, so it is always better to be prepared.  When creating a disaster plan, write out how you will care for your animals and property, who you will contact in an emergency, what supplies you may need on hand for your family and your animals, and where you might go if you are forced to evacuate.  Injuries from weather events are just as likely to occur during the clean-up stage, so be prepared and careful.
 
Climate Changes 
 
While extreme weather events can occur at any time, there are also slower permanent or temporary climate changes to consider as well.  The slow warming that is shifting agricultural zones northward means that different crops will fail or thrive than in past years.  It also means that weather events may increase or decrease with frequency.  While many changes may be permanent, it is also important to remember that locally, shifts in climate may be temporary and may revert back to a previous climate.  While it is difficult to predict local climates in the future, you can make observations and see how things have been changing in your area (you can look at last frost dates and see if there are any trends over the last 30 years that may give an indication of change in the future).   

This is part 4 in a 4 part series on Weather and Climate for the Backyard Farmer. You can find the others articles in the links below:
How do you plan for weather extremes in your area?

Weather and Climate on the Backyard Farm

WeatherFarm

Wherever you live, the weather and climate have a major impact on your backyard farm.  The climate controls what crops you can grow, which animals are likely to survive, and what supplies you need on hand, and on any given day, the weather influences your daily chores and changes the needs of the plants and animals on your backyard farm.

Over the next several weeks I will share a short series on weather and climate specifically related to the backyard farm.  I'm planning to discuss some of the climate terminology related to gardening, explain some of the traditional weather sayings, and discuss how to prepare and overcome weather and climate challenges.

Weather versus Climate

Weather is what is happening at the moment, and is usually predicted over several days at a time.  Climate is the average weather over a long period of time for a specific location.  Many of the climatic averages you are likely to hear are computed over a 30 year time period. While the weather can change dramatically over the course of just a few hours, climate is generally much more stable; although short term or long term shifts can and do occur.

As a backyard farmer, the climate allows you to plan and predict the success of your crops and your ability to raise specific animals, but the weather of any given year (and your ability to adapt to the weather) is what will determine which crops will grow and what needs to be done to keep your animals safe and healthy.

What is Your Climate?

When you begin to plan your backyard farm, it's important to determine the specific climate that occurs in your backyard.  Your climate is impacted by your height above sea level, terrain, distance from the equator, proximity to a body of water, and any number of smaller influences. Determining your climate gets tricky since climate not only changes across large areas, but changes over incredibly small areas, making the climate across even your backyard variable.

You can start to understand your specific climate by looking at the climate averages in your general region (this is how planting zones are identified).  You can get a general sense of the climate by making observations around you, but if you are someone who likes to see the numbers in front of you, you can get to work collecting some data.

The most important data to collect is temperature and precipitation averages (although wind strength/direction will also be important if you live in an open, windy area).  You can find the data from a number of sources, but for the United States, I prefer the National Weather Service.  You can find climate data for your area by clicking on the map and than selecting the NOWDATA tab on the top right.  Pay special attention to the average date of your first and last frost, the number of growing days, and the amount of precipitation per month.

Once you've determined the general climate in your area, it's time to determine the micro-climates that occur in your neighborhood, and even within your yard. Small areas in your yard may experience dramatically different climates. And even though a certain plant won't generally grow in your zone, you may find that a certain part of your yard is warm enough on certain years. Look carefully at the layout and general placement of your backyard farm.  If you are located on a hill, you are likely more exposed to cold temperatures in the winter and heavy winds, while if you're at the bottom of a valley, you may find that cold air settles and you experience earlier frosts than homes located uphill.  Here are some basic 'rules' for finding the micro-climates in your backyard:

  • Southern facing areas are usually warmer (especially when these southern areas are against a building) The soil here will also dry out more quickly
  • Areas in the shade are cooler and retain moisture
  • Areas near water are more temperate (warm when it's cold and cooler when it's warm)
  • Areas at the bottom of hills (even small hills) will be colder on still, clear nights as the air sinks, this is especially important in the fall and spring as these spots will likely experience a frost earlier than nearby areas
  • Small spaces protected from the wind will experience warmer temperatures and conversely, exposed areas will be subject to wind
  • Gardens that are under the edge of your roof will get more run off when it rains and will be wetter

Once you've determined your climate and microclimate, you can use this information to plan the crops and animals that with not only survive, but thrive in your area.  Next week I will discuss the specific parameters that can help you select crops, but the best way to plan your garden, is to find someone in the area and learn what works for them.  If you don't know anyone locally, try talking to people at farmers markets, or even simply observe what varieties they are growing.

Weather for the Backyard Farmer

Climate may be important for planning your garden, but this year's weather is what will determine your success or failure.  The weather reports get a lot of grief for the number of times they get it wrong, but when you realize they are making predictions of air movements that impact each other horizontally and vertically across large and small areas, it's often more impressive that they get it right so much of the time.  Weather reports also have a much more difficult time making predictions for a small area.  It may be possible to predict a thunderstorm is in the area, but very difficult to predict where the storm may travel, and even harder to predict where in that storm the strongest winds may be found.  As a backyard farmer, you should approach a weather prediction skeptically and recognize that a variety of different weather phenomena might occur over your region at a given time.

Temperature

Temperature is important for the farmer: it dictates whether a frost will kill off your seedlings, whether your greenhouse will get too hot, or whether your animals water will freeze and need thawing throughout the day.  Temperature prediction are often more accurate than other forecast predictions.  In general, your temperature will change based on the amount of clouds in the sky as well as the larger scale circulation. Clouds keep the sun from warming the ground during the day, but keep the ground insulated and warmer at night.  As air masses and fronts move through your area, they can pull air from warmer and colder climates causing rapid changes in temperature. 

Precipitation

Precipitation is even more difficult to predict than temperature.  As a backyard farmer, the type of precipitation your yard receives is more important the the amount of precipitation.  Strong heavy rains will often run-off the surface and may not replenish your garden.  On the other hand, slow, steady drizzles may only drop a small amount of rain, but will actually be more readily absorbed into the soil.  It is always a good idea after a rain to dig into your soil a bit and see how well the rain replenished the moisture.  By collecting you own rainwater, you can more easily adjust to changes in precipitation.  You can also install a cheap rain gauge to track total precipitation.

Wind

For many people, wind plays a dramatic role on their garden and farm.  Wind cools plants and animals, evaporates water, and can knock over struggling seedlings or even trees.  It's important to know the dominant wind direction, and to protect your plants and animals using wind barriers when necessary.  Winter winds especially can make a cold night significantly more dangerous for animals since wind causes the warmth from an animals own body warmth to dissipate.

Stop by next week for more backyard farming weather and climate!

Create a Children's Garden

childrengarden 

If children are part of your backyard farm, (even if they're just visitors) creating a children's garden can welcome them and encourage them to explore their own small corner of earth.  Helping children take part in the work of producing their own food benefits everyone.  Gardening not only teaches children about the process of growing things, but also teaches compassion, hard work, and ignites the  curiosity.  Working alongside children in the garden makes the experience even more powerful and is an can be an integral part of backyard farming. 

When you begin to design a children's garden, remember that this space can be simply a traditional garden space where a child is the gardener, or an entire area dedicated to structures and children's related play and gardening.  Based on your space, your time, the age of your child, and you children's interest, you can design the garden space specifically to meet your needs.

A few Things to Remember 

  • Before you get started, remember this is a children's garden.  Make sure they are involved in the entire process (including the planning).  While it's tempting to do much of the work yourself, make sure there is an area that is truly 100% there own.  While watching a child transplant the same plant everyday may be painful for you to watch, it is part of their process and learning, and will truly give them ownership over the space.
  • Resist the temptation to hide the garden in the back or in a shady space where plants won't grow.  A child will place a greater importance on a garden if you show it is important
  • Encourage children to grow food.  They will often learn to love the food they grow even if they don't like the store bought version. There is nothing as tasty are food right from the garden
  • Work in the garden (or a nearby garden) with your child - it truly is one of the best things you can do
Hadley in the Childrens Garden
 
A children's garden doesn't have to be just a plot of earth, and it can grow as the children grow.  Here are some ideas of what you can include in a children's garden:
  • A stick teepee for growing beans or vines
  • A balance beam
  • Strawberry plants
  • Bulbs and seeds
  • Favorite Vegetables
  • A tunnel or fort
  • A texture garden
  • An aromatherapy garden with herbs
  • Sunflowers - a sunflower house
  • A sandbox
  • A quiet reflective spot
  • A bridge
  • A fairy Garden  
  • A music wall 
  • A Game
  • Natural Wood block
  • Table and chairs


For more ideas, check out this Pinterest board and visit me on Facebook

You can also get more ideas on planning this years garden in some of these recent posts:

 Planning a Bee Garden
Winter Planning for Spring (and summer) Vegetable Gardens
Ordering Seeds

childrengarden1























 

  

Tips for Selecting Seeds

It's time to start planning for spring planting.  If you haven't chosen seeds and selected the crops you hope to grow, now is the time.  Here are a few thoughts to help you get started.

Seed Starting 

Choose Seeds that Will Grow in Your Area

When selecting seeds that will grow in your area, consider your agricultural zone as well as the length of your growing season.  You can determine the length of your growing season, by finding the number of days between the average last frost and average first frost.  Use this information to determine whether the seeds you are selecting will grow in your zone, keeping in mind that many yards have small micro climates that will allow you some flexibility in what you can grow.  If you have 100 days in your growing season, don't buy melons that take 130 days to ripen.

Choose Seeds that You Will Eat or Like how They Look

This seems obvious, but so often we manage to buy some seed that we don't actually like to eat.  If you are willing to invest money, time, and space into growing a crop from seeds start by choosing your favorite foods and make sure to steer clear of those that are so-so. 

Choose Things that Taste better Fresh

If you can only grow a limited number of seeds, select crops that taste better fresh.  Tomatoes are the perfect example of a mediocre grocery store purchase compared to the mouth watering varieties from the garden.

Consider Heirloom, Organic, and Non-Genetically Engineered Seeds

Look for seed companies that have signed the safe-seed pledge and are selling seeds that have not been genetically engineered.  By choosing to grow heirloom, organic, or just non-genetically modified crops, you are supporting green practices and the small companies that are selling open-pollinated vegetables, fruit and flower seeds.  If you are looking for a list of seed companies, check out the organic seed finder site from AOSCA.

Create a Seed Sharing Group

So often we are interested in growing just a few of each variety in our garden, yet even the smallest seed packets can have hundreds of seeds.  Get together with others in your area, and share your seeds to increase the number of varieties for your own backyard.

Keep a Record of What you Like

This year I am making the pledge to record everything I plant, how it grows and where I put it.  Knowing what worked well last year is incredibly important when you sit down to plan your next years garden (as I'm being reminded of right now).  Keep in mind that some year crops just fail, so give your seeds at least a few years before you give up, and choose another variety.

What else do you consider when selecting seeds for the coming year? 

How to Make Your Own Extracts

With all the baking that went on here this holiday season, we rapidly used up our supply of store bought extracts.  While store bought extracts are convenient, the imitations extracts are filled with chemicals and taste just a bit artificial, and the real extracts often cost upward of 10 dollars.  With just a little planning and patience, you can make your own extracts at home with just some basic ingredients.

Vanilla Extract 
Six reasons you should make your own extract:

  1. They're cheaper
  2. They taste better
  3. They are better for you
  4. It's a fun ongoing project going on right in your kitchen
  5. They can be used as gifts
  6. You can control the intensity

Making Extracts

To make your own extracts you need a jar, a solvent, and some item to use as flavoring.  If you wish you can sterilize the jar before use, but so far I have had success simply using extra clean jars.  For a solvent, you need some kind of alcohol, preferably vodka.  It is important that there is water and alcohol in the solvent to extract more flavor, so stick with vodka since using an alcohol that is too high proof won't get to those water soluble flavors.  You can flavor your extracts with a variety of things.  Choose extracts that you often use in your own baking such as vanilla, lemon, almond, or peppermint. 

Making Vanilla Extract

You can buy vanilla beans over the internet, or at specialty food stores.  Use approximately 2 seeds for every pint of vodka. Cut the vanilla bean lengthwise, or chop it up to increase the flavor.  Put the the seeds in your jar with 70-90 proof vodka and put the jar somewhere you won't forget about it.

Shake the bottle every few days/weeks.  Your extract should be done in 2-3 months.  The longer you allow it to sit, the stronger the flavor.  Once you are happy with it, you can strain it to remove the vanilla beans and store the extract in a dark place.  Don't throw those beans out, most beans can be used twice!

Making Peppermint Extract

Cut up 1/2 cup of tightly packed peppermint leaves.  Place them in a jar and pour in about 1 cup of vodka.  Make sure the leaves are completely covered.  Every several days shake the jar.  Your extract should be done in about 1 month, and you can strain it and store it in a cool, dark place.

Making Lemon Extract

Zest 2 large lemons and add it to a jar with 1 cup vodka and 2 teaspoons of sugar.  You can use a lesser strength vodka for this recipe (40%).  Shake the extract daily for a month, and strain it.  Store in a dark and cool space.

Making Almond Extract

Combine 12 cut up raw almonds with 1 pint of vodka in a jar.  Shake the jar every few days for about 2 months.  When the extract reaches the desired intensity, strain it and store it in a cool dark spot.

Join my in my adventure here.

Book Review: Backyard Farming on an Acre (more or less)

Angela England’s book Backyard Farming on an Acre (moreor less) is as inspiring as it is informative.  Not only does the book describe in detail how to plan your homestead, grow your own food, raise animals, prepare food, and craft using the materials from your backyard, but it does so in a simple, engaging and friendly manner.  Throughout the book, Angela England walks you through the skills of backyard farming with honesty and knowledge. While the book claims to focus on backyard farming on roughly an acre, the book provides valuable information for a range of situations: from people living on small plot in the city to people with many acres in the country.

With a growing number of homesteading books available, I was pleased to read a book that covered the information in detail without over complicating the simple procedures.  The skills of the backyard farmer have been practiced for years - well before the use of sophisticated kitchen utensils and high tech tools, and were presented in the book without intimidation.  I specifically enjoyed the simple approach in the section on beekeeping.  As a beekeeper, I still find much of the literature daunting and appreciated the uncomplicated description of maintaining a beehive.

While many books sufficiently cover growing vegetables and raising animals, I enjoyed the down to earth discussion of food preparation and crafting.  I would have enjoyed a section on using grains in the kitchen, but benefited from the section on storing food in a root cellar or basement.  Her simple description of making infusions, decoctions and tinctures has already inspired me to plan some of my own projects for the coming year. 

Part 5 of the book covered crafting in the backyard farm and included many of the skills often overlooked in homesteading books.  There are so many additional ways to engage in backyard farming besides gardening and keeping animals and the book discussed everything from making dairy products, to brewing cider.  Since we raise Pygora goats (similar to Angoras) I greatly appreciated the discussion on using fiber.   

This book will continue to be a resource in my home for many years to come.

I did receive a copy of this book to review; however the opinion expressed above is honestly and truly my own.

To read more, visit me here or follow me on Facebook.