Homesteading Family Learns About Living Off the Land

My introduction to farming began with a grandmother who buried eggshells in house-plant pots placed on urban windowsills high above the street. She couldn’t explain why it worked – it just did.

Farming isn’t only about planting, growing and harvesting. It’s also about the enrichment of the soil, and this practice can be applied to growing something as simple as a potted geranium.

As a young woman, I learned about composting and soil building that helped produce vegetables and flowers in several subdivisions – years before I actually owned a piece of land large enough to farm.

We chose a location for our garden that had been such in an earlier time. It was a gently sloping, south-facing piece of land ringed by old apple trees, Concord grapevines that stretched to the sky, and long-untended stands of blue spruce thickened into an impenetrable mass. When I pushed a fork into the soil, it came out smooth and clean.

The ground that had been untended and unplanted for decades became the foundation for our perfect little homestead. We reclaimed the garden, broke ground for the house, and began to plan for the barn, all at the same time. Everything was designed to complement each other and our projected plans.

We constructed a root cellar beneath the porch to store hundreds of pounds of potatoes each fall, and we accessed the cellar on a ladder we dropped through a hatch built into the porch. The potatoes meant to be eaten were kept in the baskets closest to the opening, and others farther back were seed potatoes for the next year.

A special storage area in the basement was designed to hold canning jars that would preserve the rest of the harvest.

We carried produce from the garden to the house and peeled, seeded, shelled, shucked, pitted and prepared, and the unusable parts went into one of two containers. I begged for them at donut shops that had products arrive in covered pails that ranged from 3-1⁄2 to 5 gallons. I kept two under the sink – one was added to the compost pile when full, or sooner if I could smell it, and the other was used to collect scraps for the chickens and pigs. The contents of the compost pail were added to clippings, straw, wood shavings and manure collected around the farm and from the barn.

Several other pails, which were food-grade, were put aside to hold shredded, salted cabbage or cucumbers, and during the growing season the sour fragrance of the fermentation process filled the house.

The garden supplemented the feed we bought for our animals, and being the city girl that I was, I wanted them all: We had sheep, goats, chickens, rabbits, pigs, poultry, and a milk cow. The bull calves our Guernsey delivered were grown for beef. Our does kindled and raised their litters in cages with drop pans, and each morning I rolled a wheelbarrow down the aisle and collected the contents while checking nest boxes for new bunnies. The garden rows were side-dressed with rabbit and cow manure, and the remaining manure was added to the compost piles built at the high side of the garden so any nutrients lost to rain would run directly into the turned soil. Old patches of rhubarb and asparagus sprang to life with heavy doses of the rich compost, as did the grapevines, which were coaxed out of the trees and cut to a manageable height.

Each spring the compost piles erupted with life as vines bearing true squash varieties and others resembling alien spacecraft spread out over the ground and up the rough bark of nearby tree trunks. I trained the vines to sprawl to one side, and picked the fruit as it grew to size for the squealing pigs who knew a treat when they saw it. The heat of the pile induced tomato seeds to germinate early, and the strongest plants were transplanted to the garden.

Most of my vegetables were born of non-hybridized seeds, and at the end of each summer, I collected them in envelopes upon which I wrote the vital statistics. In each successive year, these plants adapted and grew stronger, and during the peak of the growing season, I tied pieces of colored cloth to those producing the earliest, biggest and best harvest so I would be sure to save those seeds. Windowsills were filled with jars of tomato seeds to be collected as they separated from the gelatinous coating and settled in the bottom of the glass. Careful records kept track of the process.

I experimented with old varieties of vegetables not available in any local supermarket. I also planted new varieties, like the then seldom-seen golden zucchini, which, with its crayon-colored skin, had to be explained to shoppers at the farmers’ market.

Our operation was small, and we had no fancy equipment. Our Troy-Bilt tiller was used to break ground and cultivate between rows, and a chainsaw helped drop trees and cut lengths, but every other chore was done with a hand tool. We sheared with bow shears, milked by hand, and weeded on hands and knees. Potato beetles and their larvae were plucked every other day to interrupt their reproduction cycle. And we learned new skills from older neighbors who were delighted to teach our young family what we needed to know, and who chuckled at some of our more-citified mistakes. Our real treasures were the homesteading and farming magazines that showed up in the mailbox each month.

None of this was work, because it was the path to providing the best for my children, and because it involved them in the process. The vegetables they helped grow and the dairy, eggs and meat from the animals they helped raise made their bodies strong, and the fact that they were an important part of our operation gave them self-esteem. They are grown now and passing their knowledge on to my grandchildren. Thus, the seeds I planted years ago continue to be sown. It’s a garden of which we are proud.

Sheila Velazquez lives in northwest Massachusetts, where she is currently writing a science fiction novel based on fact. The plot involves a scenario in which there are no viable seeds to save.

  • Published on Oct 6, 2015
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