One of the driving forces behind the birth of Frugalwoods was our desire to leave the city and buy a homestead in the woods. That happened in May 2016 and let me tell you, we had A LOT of preconceived notions about what it would be like to live rurally, some of which turned out to be true and some of which… not so much. It’s easy to gloss over the specifics when you’re dreaming about moving to the country. It becomes very much about the specifics when you lose power and water for a week in the dead of winter thanks to an ice storm. It’s those specifics–those powerful details–that have shaped our lives out here.
A gargantuan assumption was that we’d grow all of our own food.
Before so much as starting a single tomato plant, I nurtured an idyllic vision of us growing all the fruits and vegetables we could ever want each summer. There I was among the rows, singing to each vegetable, encouraging it to flourish. Then I saw us in the kitchen–with our children gracefully assisting–as we meticulously preserved each harvest for winter. We then pan to us eating from our larder as the snow falls and the woodstove warms us with wood from our land. Little House On the Prairie without the problematic gender roles, hunger, abysmal treatment of indigenous peoples, and lack of antibiotics and modern medicine!
I have a powerful imagination and in addition to growing fruits and vegetables, I thought perhaps we’d raise meat chickens, pigs, goats–why not!–and have a dairy cow for milk from which I’d church my own butter and make my own cheese. Surely we could provide for all of our needs and live out a modern-day sustainable, free range, organic paradise of our own making. To be clear, all of this IS technically possible. And yes, plenty of folks do it.
However, I am not destined to be one of those folks.
My husband Nate and I moved to our 66-acre homestead in the woods of rural Vermont on May 18, 2016 and today, seven years on, I want to share what we’ve learned, re-learned and are still learning about growing our own food. I’ll share more of our rural assumptions in upcoming posts, which are all part of a series on…
Old Me vs. Current Me: A Showdown
April was the NINTH anniversary of Frugalwoods and to celebrate, I’m typing down memory lane with reflections on some of my most influential old posts. Nine years is a long time to do anything and I’m curious to see if I agree with my old self or if my thoughts have changed in the intervening years. Since May is the SEVENTH anniversary of our transition to rural life, this seems the perfect time to reflect on rural.
You can check out my first three Frugalwoods nine-year retrospectives here:
- Reflecting on Nine Years of Frugalwoods
- Revisiting My 2015 Beauty Manifesto: What I Got Right, What I Got Wrong
- An Update On How Postpartum Depression Changed My Life
Now let’s get to debunking!
Rural Assumption #1: We’ll Grow and Raise All of Our Own Food!
Fact Check: That’s a nope.
The primary reason? This is an all-consuming, full-time job during harvest seasons and I do not want to grow, harvest and preserve food full-time.
I like to do a little bit of a lot of different things, and that includes some gardening and some canning and preserving.
To accept this, I had to let go of the image of myself as a perfect homesteader out here homesteading away. It’s just not who I am. I like what we do on our land, but I don’t want to do it all day, every day. After seven years, I finally no longer feel guilty for not growing and raising all of our food. I actually feel good about buying food from our farmer neighbors who commit to this work full-time. I like supporting their efforts. Plus, they’re a lot better at it than me.
For Nate and me, the whole point of this lifestyle change was to let go of the city rat race, the external pressures and the societal expectations.
We wanted to no longer work for other people and no longer constantly rush around. Rural life, for us, means joy, time, freedom and space. And here’s the thing:
I’ve learned that chaining myself to my vegetable garden is really no different than chaining myself to my desk and computer.
A garden has endless needs, does not care about your time/energy/plans and exerts a lot of time-bound pressures. Anything that saps all my time and energy–and demands I do things I don’t have the desire to do–isn’t why I moved here. Excessive gardening stressed me out. So now, we grow a little bit of this and a tidbit of that and we call it a day. Let me tell you the story of how I got here.
The Kale & Chard Apocalypse of 2018
Detailed in this old post, this was the harvest that did me in. Still early in our gardening experiments, Nate started from seed, planted, weeded, watered and harvested 80 kale and chard plants. Yes, EIGHTY.
That was 70 plants too many. Because let me tell you: that kale and chard LOVED growing here. It was the most successful thing we’ve ever planted. All 80 of them.
Still under the delusion that I was perhaps actually Laura Ingalls Wilder reincarnated, I was determined to preserve and save EVERY LAST STALK of kale and chard we grew. I wanted to see if we could do it–actually provide for all of our sustenance needs (insofar as kale and chard are concerned).
I spent hours harvesting, washing and drying these greens. The leaves were so enormous that I had to use our baby pool and several giant plastic tubs for rinsing stations. My poor parents made the mistake of coming for a visit during this debacle and got roped into helping (sorry again about that, mom and dad!). When stuff comes ripe, there are never enough hands to help. But you never know quite when that ripe day will be, which means you live at the whims of the garden.
After we’d harvested, washed and (kinda) dried the leaves, we took them into the kitchen for processing, which entailed:
- Chopping them up
- Blanching them to freeze
- OR canning them in a hot water bath canner
- OR turning them into kimchi
And we did it. It took DAYS. A plural number of days. While there were fun moments, it was stressful to do with two tiny kids underfoot. I was exhausted from bending over to harvest in the garden and stooping to wash and standing in the kitchen for hours to process. And that was just to process ONE crop. More precisely: ONE harvest of ONE crop.
The absolute worst part of it is that we didn’t have a chance to eat all of that hard-won preservation before some of it went bad.
Broke my heart to dump it out into the compost, but alas, home-canned stuff doesn’t last forever and I didn’t know how to calculate our consumption rate.
After that draining experience and the demoralizing realization that we couldn’t even consume all that we’d worked so hard to put away, I decided to change our homesteading food outlook. We are profoundly privileged that we’re not subsistence farmers. We do not have to do this to ourselves. I was competing against an idyllic image I had of people who homestead and grow their own food. I’d read the blogs and books and Instagram posts and I felt pressure to live up to that standard.
I’d succeeded in transplanting the stress and anxiety of my office job onto my gardening.
I needed to change this outlook or I’d soon start to hate what I’d worked so hard to enable myself to do.
Where We’ve Landed In 2023
It’s taken years and I’m still working to divorce myself from the self-imposed pressure to be a perfect homesteader. But I’m now a lot more realistic about how I want to spend my time during the summer months. I don’t want to be tethered to the garden. I want to take the kids to the local lake with friends, I want to go hear live music at our neighbors’ farm, I want to hike and play. I don’t want to spend 12 hours chopping and blanching enormous stalks of chard. I want balance and freedom in my life.
Many of you have asked me to re-start my This Month On The Homestead series and to be honest, I haven’t because I feel like we’re letting you down as homesteaders! We did SO MUCH work our first few years and now, we kinda just rinse and repeat with each season. The infrastructure set-up of our first years was staggering and I’m glad it’s over with. I certainly could re-start the series and let you know how things are going, but don’t hold your collective breaths.
Gardening Areas as of May 2023
We still garden and we still have a bunch of different food-growing areas around the property, so I’ll detail each. I did an exhaustive overview a few years ago in This Month On The Homestead: The Full Garden Rundown Including Building Raised Beds. If you’re a garden nerd and want to nerd out, that post’s for you!
Here’s where we plant food these days:
1) Four raised beds right next to our back porch.
Nate built these back in 2020 and I love them because of their proximity to the house. Easy to walk out and snip a few things for dinner. Here’s what we’ve done with them:
Beds 1 and 2: Strawberries
- We planted 100 strawberry plants back in 2020 and I can’t say that was the best idea. The strawberries attract every type of pestilence, including but not limited to:
- An extended family of garden snakes who tunnel ‘neath the roots and pop their little headsies up anytime I’m out there weeding or harvesting. I don’t mind snakes, but I’d prefer they not POP up at me. A more gradual approach would be appreciated.
- An entire daycare of baby chipmunks who are a hot mess in there. Stomping on plants, rummaging around in the dirt. Mess.
- BIRDS. Allll the birds. We put hooped netting over the plants, but the chipmunk daycare class knocked them over and ate holes in the nets.
- Our own children. So desirous of fresh strawberries that they continually, routinely, annually pluck pre-ripe berries, rip plants and destroy my clever netting system.
Also, since these are raised beds, the soil level sinks each year. We put a ton of logs in the bottom to build up the base, but as those decompose, you really need to add more soil every year, which we can’t do with the strawberries in there unless we replant all 100 of them.
- This year, I turned one of these beds over to Kidwoods, who was begging for her very own flower garden. Half of the strawberry plants in there were dead and I helped her transplant the surviving strawberries into one half of the bed and she planted flower seeds in the other half.
- TBD what I’ll do with the other bed, which is still full of strawberries (and snake tunnels).
Beds 3 and 4: herbs and greens
- This is where I put our herbs: basil, thyme, rosemary, dill and oregano.
- As well as our salad greens: lettuce, greens mix, sorrel, arugula.
- I start the herbs and lettuce from seed and I direct sow the rest.
- The greens can be succession planted, meaning I rip them out when they start to flower and plant new seeds. If I keep up with it, we have fresh greens all summer long.
- I started carrots in here a few years ago, but accidentally put them right next to the dill plant and–wouldn’t you know it–carrot leaves and dill look ALMOST IDENTICAL. There were some casualties.
- This system seems to work pretty well since most of this stuff is annual and not perennial. We added more soil last year and will need to add more again next year.
2) The “Big” Vegetable Garden
The “big” vegetable garden is where we grow the majority of our annual veggies. Annual means you have to plant new ones every year as opposed to plants that are perennial, which means they come back every year. This garden is fenced in and has cattle panels–which I installed by myself one year, might I add–for things like tomatoes and snap peas to vine up. Much easier than trellising each individual plant. I gently bend the fronds up towards the panels and they take it from there. Highly recommend.
In this garden, we grow a fairly large number of vegetables every summer and love eating fresh tomatoes, beans, squash, snap peas, cucumbers, peppers, and other misc plants I’m now forgetting. I also adore growing pumpkins and gourds for fall decorations, which I feed to our chickens when the season’s over.
This is the garden where the kids each get their own row to plant, tend and harvest!
- Each kid gets to start her own seeds. Whatever seeds she wants! We put them in their own little seed starting trays and–upon Kidwoods’ insistence–label them by name. My trays say “Mama.”
- I start about three trays worth of plants and I only do a few of each kind. I am well aware that we don’t need 89 tomato plants (like I did a few years ago… ).
- We start all of these from seeds in the spring and plant the starts in the ground in early June–too cold to do so before then!
3) Mr. FW tends our perennial food situation, which he’s grown to include:
- 28 blueberry bushes
- 3 currant bushes
- 3 Saskatoon berry bushes
- 3 plum trees
- 4 cherry bushes
- 10 apple trees
- 4 cider apple trees
- 5 pear trees
- 2 peach trees
- 4 elderberry bushes
I’ll admit that sounds like a lot. And in terms of sheer number of plants, it is a lot, but in terms of how much fruit we actually get? It’s not all that much.
1. All of this stuff takes many years to ramp up to its full production potential.
It takes an apple tree ~6 years before it bears a single apple. The blueberry bushes took two years to make an edible blueberry. Similar timelines are attached to all of these perennial fruits.
2. Other things like to eat these sweet treats too.
And by “other,” I am indeed referring to the Clever Varmint Patrol (CVP) who, so far, have managed to eat EVERY SINGLE plum and cherry we’ve ever grown. They stalk these plants and then, I swear, the minute the fruit turns perfectly ripe, they snatch it all and take it to their lair(s). We don’t want to use pesticides, building a fence is too expensive (and would ruin the view)–plus a mere fence is no match for the CVP–and we’ve tried netting and chicken-wire cages. We will try netting again, but all that seems to happen with the netting is that our children get tangled up in it…
Additionally, a flock of wild turkeys once flew into our blueberry patch–which is enclosed by a fence–and then COULD NOT GET BACK OUT. They’d trapped themselves so thoroughly that when we went to shoo them away, they repeatedly RAN INTO THE FENCE. Nate had to go inside the fence and herd them out. I just… what is there to say about flight-enabled birds who forget how to fly in moments of crisis?
3. The weather, am I right?
If the CVP doesn’t devour them, it’s highly possible these fruits’ll die/underproduce due to too much sun, too little sun, too much rain, too little rain, a late frost, an early frost, a too-cold frost, a not-cold-enough frost…
4. Then, harvesting happens all at once!
Most of these perennial fruits come ripe all at the same time. In other words, all the apples on one tree turn ripe on the same day. And once the fruit ripens, you’ve got to pick it ASAP. If you don’t, the CVP will eat it or it’ll fall to the ground and be consumed by ants and other ground-hugging creatures. Fruit trees, much like children, have no interest or concern for your schedule. They ripen when they want, how they want. If you’re not ready to drop everything and harvest all day long? The CVP will take care of it for you.
5. Preserving! Canning! Pressing! Oh My!
If we are lucky enough to come this far, if a winter frost didn’t kill the plants, a late frost didn’t burn the blossoms, the CVP didn’t exact its revenge, insects didn’t disease the tree AND we managed to harvest all of the fruit on that one, perfect, magical, glorious day… NOW WHAT?!!!
This, my friends, is how I’ve found myself with a kitchen bursting with ripe fruits and vegetables. With so much chard and kale I had to store it in the kids’ plastic pool. With so many apples–all at once!–that I can’t fit all the barrels in the kitchen and have to lug some down to the basement.
It is an incredible privilege to have all this food, but without an industrial kitchen and a work crew and endless time… it doesn’t all get preserved. THOUGH I HAVE TRIED. That kale/chard harvest was the defining moment that changed my mind about how deeply I want to commit to food preservation. Now, I do what I can.
I no longer feel guilt over not turning Every. Single. Cucumber into pickles. We eat a ton, we give a bunch away to friends and neighbors and maybe I make a few jars of pickles. But not 100 quarts. I did that a few years ago and just, wow. People asked me to please cease giving them jars of pickles as gifts. There is such a thing as over-gifting your preserved foods. Ask me how I know.
Here’s how I now preserve the perennial foods:
Blueberries are the easiest because the kids can harvest them on their own–there are no thorns, it’s very obvious when a berry is ripe and the bushes are low to the ground. Then, all I have to do is rinse them and throw them into bags in the freezer. Easy.
- Apples are the hardest. Nate or I have to do most of the harvesting because they’re so high up in the trees. That doesn’t stop the kids from helping and they both get beaned on the head by apples every year. Apples are also tough because they require a ton of work to process. I like to make applesauce, apple butter and dried apples, but all three require me to first wash and dry the apples, then peel and core them, then cook them down into sauce or jam, and then hot water bath can the sauce. Repeat this MANY times until you’ve used up all the apples (or they’ve gone bad waiting for you to get to them). We’ve also pressed them into cider in past years–and probably will again in the future–but this is another massive investment in time (not to mention supplies).
- Strawberries get eaten fresh (mostly by the kids, mostly before even making it inside). Easy!
- Plums and cherries get eaten by the CVP.
- Currants are made into jam, which is fairly involved, but we do seem to eat that up and it is worthwhile to make it.
- Nothing else produces fruit yet.
Sometimes we preserve annual foods, including making:
- Tomatoes into sauce
- Cucumber into pickles
- Beans into pickled beans
All of this is fun to do in moderation and we do eat it, but in moderation. Since we don’t have to eat pickled chard stems to survive the winter, we don’t need to make 90 quarts of pickled chard stems. To be clear: many folks choose to grow and preserve all of their food and that is great! Many folks do it successfully and have very low grocery bills because of it! Not me.
The final stage for every gardener: acceptance. Acceptance that I do not like being out in a garden all day OR in a kitchen canning all day. I like to be in a garden for awhile and I don’t mind canning for awhile. I like doing it with the kids since I think it teaches them some nifty skills.
But it’s no longer a race to ultimate homesteader for me. I’ve realized that the pressure for perfection isn’t limited to school or traditional jobs–it can take over anything. Even gardening!!!! So we’ll plant our little plants this year and maybe remember to weed and water them. And I might can a few quarts of apple sauce. Or I might not. And either way? We will still be grateful to live out here.