A few years ago, I embarked on an endeavor to explore specific crops that could serve as a reliable food source of self-sufficiency for both people and animals, particularly during times when access to food might be limited. This proactive approach stemmed from recognizing the importance of preparedness in the face of various potential disruptions, whether it be financial setbacks, extreme weather events, or broader societal shifts.
In contemplating these possibilities, I realized the necessity of culminating skills, accumulating knowledge, and preparing a place to cultivate a variety of crops that could ensure abundance in challenging circumstances. I pondered over what I could grow to provide for our animals if conventional sources of animal feed were unavailable. After all, having livestock for meat and eggs is one thing, but ensuring they're well-fed is equally crucial.
My research led me to explore various seed types suitable for our Zone 4 climate, characterized by a short and cooler growing season. This climate presents challenges for certain crops, but I've discovered that my mulched method gardening helps retain heat, creating a more conducive environment for typically warmer growing crops. Through experimentation and plant placement, I've been exploring methods to lessen these climate limitations and optimize our gardening efforts. Additionally, I pondered which crops could potentially serve as valuable commodity for bartering in situations where certain items might become scarce. All of these considerations came back to the importance of having a well-prepared growing space, honed skills, and a diverse array of plant varieties at my disposal and all of this needed to be done ahead of an emergency situation.
This has been a 2-year project, and I wanted to share the progress and insights gained along the way.
In my search for seeds, I had specific criteria in mind. It was crucial to find heritage or stable seeds that could be collected year after year. Additionally, I sought varieties with shorter maturity rates and the harvest must be a good winter storing and shelf stable food. I also wanted multi-purpose seeds, capable of serving multiple functions, this also was a priority. The crops that I chose needed to be abundant with minimal work and high in nutrition, also the rate of quantity produced needed to be grown on a small footprint of ground. I took many things into consideration, and it took some time to come to my final selections.
Over the past two years, this endeavor has been an ongoing experiment marked by both trial and error. Initially, I focused on learning how to grow and then progressed to mastering the art of harvesting and utilization.
The first Crop that I started looking into was trying to figure out how we could supplement animal feed if we needed to. After all you can raise your own meat and eggs but if you don't have the food to feed them your system ends there. If I got the right corn, it could also be ground as a corn meal for our use. We love to have cornmeal mush or Johnny cake and chili on a cold winters day and there is nothing like freshly ground corn for this. I never realized the taste difference until we did our own, it is amazing! I also never realized that there was a difference in corn types that you would grow specifically to make corn meal with. This corn used to grind is called Dent corn, and it has many different varieties.
I chose a heritage variety called Ruby Red from Restoration Seeds company. In the second year, I also started growing a small separate crop to collect the seed, making sure it stays pure to keep the generations going. This corn also is a great substitute for chicken feed as it can be ground course and be a cracked corn. This is definitely a keeper crop, does very well for me and is dual purpose! It has earned a place in my seed library!
In my quest for garden delights, I was determined to find the perfect popcorn variety. However, this endeavor came with its own set of challenges – mastering the art of harvesting and properly drying the kernels for winter storage.
After considering several options, I settled on a black variety to bring a unique twist to our popcorn experience. Much to my surprise and delight, the black popcorn flourished and, with careful drying techniques, produced consistently delicious pops every time!
Now, enjoying popcorn has become a fun activity in our household, especially when the kids are around. I love reminding them of how this special popcorn grew right in our garden during the sunny summer season. It's a simple pleasure.
The next crop for considering was a crop that would give me an alternative or supplement to flour. In my research, Amaranth was highly recommended, so I bought a Red amaranth and decided to grow this. I have learned a lot about amaranth in this two-year experiment.
I learned that it self-seeds REALLY well all on its own and does not need help to replant as long as it is able to come to maturity. One seed head has 1000's of seeds and because of this it's not a great plant to have in the garden. Its leaves can be eaten at an early age in a salad or cooked like a spinach and is an absolutely beautiful plant! So those are definitely great reasons to keep it here. I have decided that it is a great plant to spread the seeds around the animals because they can nibble on the leaves or if it goes to seed, the chickens and visiting birds love to snack on the seeds that are dispersed. I will make sure this stays in and around the chicken house and their garden to keep a good source of nutrition ever-growing for them.
I have also found that it does not work for me to make flour out of. The amount of work and time it takes to try to glean the seeds and make them "grind ready" is ridiculous. They are so small, and it is too labor-intensive to even think about it being a crop that will make any amount of flour to be a helpful harvest in a time of need.
I am going to try something different this year for this category, but these plants will always be welcome to grow anywhere they want outside of the garden here for bird and animal food. They just won't be a foundation in my garden library.
My next focus was on something that I had been doing a lot of research on, natural parasite remedies. It is my opinion that being proactive is a whole lot better than trying to be reactive when it comes to parasites and animals. I needed to find a solution that would bypass my reliance on chemicals if a need should arise. I don't want to use chemicals if I can help it and the cost incurred with testing and medicines to correct an issue, can be high. This led me to several great remedies that I use, but one of them is tobacco. Now remember, I live in Zone 4 and I have never heard of anyone talking about growing "real" Tobacco here. Typically, I associate tobacco as a warmer southern crop, but I wanted to try to see if it would be an alternative to add to my parasite arsenal. This crop also could be twofold, because I was also thinking about what I could grow that would be a needed commodity if it came to a point of needing to barter.
The first year I grew tobacco I Learned that it took quite a while for the seeds to germinate. I also learned that they very closely resemble baby Mullein plants. Ask me how I know.... In late spring I was anxiously waiting for them to pop out of the ground. As I was weeding the row that was beginning to fill in with "weeds" I started to second guess what I was pulling. I decided I really should double check and make sure that these were indeed baby mullein. This is where having a plant ID app in the garden with you comes in handy. Sure enough, these "weeds" were baby tobacco plants! So I also learned that they don't like to be disturbed and that when you try to replant them, they're not really happy with you. I did end up having half of the row continue to grow and they became big and beautiful plants! This was pretty exciting! So now that I knew I could grow them, I needed to further my journey on how to harvest and use these plants. My first year growing I was researched how and when to harvest the leaves to be able to use in my parasite regimen. I also wanted to concentrate on collecting more seeds to save for the following year.
The second year that I planted I already knew that they were going to take a while to pop up, so I was patient. I also knew what they looked like, so they didn't accidentally get pulled this time. This is the year I decided that I needed to learn how to harvest and actually prepare the leaves for a tobacco. We learned that actually hanging the whole plant upside down was a much better way to dry then taking each leaf off and trying to dry that independently like I had done the year before. This method took up way less time and room to achieve the same job. This crop has amazed me that I could grow it here in the short season we have maturing 2 years that I have grown it now. It also is a really unique plant to see in the garden as it gets tall and has a beautiful spike flower on it that smells really nice. This seed also has earned a spot in my seed library, and I will grow it every year.
The next crop I wanted to try was Peanuts! Who would've thought that in this zone we would be able to grow peanuts as I typically associate them also as a southern and warmer crop. My thought was that if I could grow peanuts then I would at least be able to have peanut butter or even a peanut oil. The first year they were planted next to the tobacco in the Ruth Stout method garden. Comparing the harvest to the second year that was planted in the back to Eden method, I learned they like the Ruth stout method better. I am assuming it is because the Ruth stout method has a looser and a softer dirt so that they're able to easily expand and grow down into the ground producing their pods. I will permanently grow this crop to my Ruth stout method garden. Once I found that I had a harvest I also quickly learned how to harvest and the process it took to make it to be a usable peanut. This was a pretty fun experiment that resulted in a yummy snack and a little bit of peanut butter, but at least I know that I can do it here! I definitely added this to my library!
The next crop on my list was one that promised both high nutritional value and a good dose of protein: beans, but specifically dry beans! While I had been growing black beans for years, I wanted to experiment with a variety that offered a larger bean with a smooth consistency, suitable as an occasional substitute for potatoes in our dinners. Enter Mother Stoddard beans.
In my first attempt at growing them, I underestimated their vining nature and ended up with a tangled mess on the ground, with a trellis lost in the chaos. Despite this trial and error, I managed to salvage enough beans to try them out, confirming their appeal to our taste buds and setting aside some for planting the following year.
Lesson learned, the next year I planted them along the taller perimeter of the garden fence, providing the height and support they needed. This time, they thrived, yielding a substantial harvest for our winter food storage.
One of my favorite methods for storing dry beans is to partially cook them until almost tender, then dehydrate them, turning them into instant beans. This saves time on soaking and preparation when we're in the mood for beans on a whim.
Despite a minor hiccup where I almost forgot to set aside seed for the next year, I was fortunate to find enough beans still hanging on the fence to ensure a successful planting season ahead. The Mother Stoddard beans have won us over with their mild nutty flavor and versatile texture, earning them a permanent place in our seed library.
In conclusion, my journey into gardening has been a rich tapestry woven with challenges and rewards. From the initial experimentation with crops like beans and popcorn to mastering the nuances of harvesting and winter storage, each experience has been a steppingstone in my ongoing quest for self-sufficiency.
Reflecting on the lessons learned and the successes achieved, I find immense joy in cultivating our own food and sharing this journey with those closest to me. Whether it's the simple pleasure of indulging in freshly popped corn on a cozy evening or relishing the flavors of a hearty bean stew, these moments underscore the significance of reconnecting with nature and embracing a more sustainable lifestyle.
Looking ahead, my excitement builds as I anticipate delving into new varieties, honing my skills, and nurturing our garden for seasons to come. With each seed planted and each harvest collected, I am not only fostering a bountiful source of sustenance but also cultivating a sense of fulfillment and harmony with the natural rhythms of life. Here's to the continued growth and abundance in the years that lie ahead.