For those of you keeping score at home, here’s the run-down on the current state of the 2018 BSM food-raising plan.
In 2016, we cleared an overgrown, eroded field that I calculate at about 0.30 of an acre. We made a vegetable garden on about 2k square feet of it, but also planted cover crops and grains on more than 8k additional square feet. Janet semi-enclosed about 3k square feet of that field and planted flowers, but also started two good-sized kitchen garden plots behind The Manor.
From this we harvested enough vegetables to reduce our grocery bills by about 35 percent over about five months. We also put some food up, and gave away as much as we could. But we had a fairly high spoilage rate from not being able to eat the fresh stuff fast enough.
We did very little with the grains we grew (spring wheat, common oats and buckwheat), as these were planted mainly as covers and grain experiments. Like the field peas we planted as a cover, I harvested about 10 percent to a quarter of each, just to learn a bit about drying, storing and processing. The lesson: You’ve got to really want to process these crops if you’re doing it by hand. Except for field peas, which don’t require as much work, and produce a lot of food.
We went into the off-season with plans to expand our active cultivation, keep improving the portions of the field we’re not using intensively, and add chickens to the mix.
This year we’d like to keep reducing our food budget, raise more of our own calories, put more food aside for winter/spring, and sell some produce to offset our grocery spending. Any fresh food that we can’t eat, put up, sell at market or give to friends, we’ll try to donate.
This will require a large expansion of the square footage we’re actively cultivating, but I don’t want it to be a large expansion of labor. This means that on the new “garden plots,” I’m emphasizing crops that can be grown without a whole lot of work. We’ll also be using row planting instead of bed planting for all the new plots.
We’ve got a decent amount of compost that we’ve produced, and this will cut our soil improvement budget a bit. But we’ll continue to invest in supplementing the compost we produce. And we’re going to mulch like crazy this year — much of it with nothing more complicated than leaves.
CORN, DRIED LEGUMES & POTATOES
We try not to eat a lot of carbohydrates (in part because we prefer drinking them), so we didn’t emphasize carb-heavy crops last year. This year we’re thinking about these more as staples that can be stored or dried, and we’re planting to include them.
Since grains are difficult to process on a small scale without heavy investment, we’ve decided to grow corn this year instead. We’ll plant one 30×40-foot plot with a heritage dent corn called Hickory King. We’ll plant a smaller plot — as far away from the first as we can manage — with an open-pollinated heirloom sweet corn called Top Hat. Both varieties were picked primarily for their natural hardiness against things like drought and insects.
We hope to produce at least 30 bushels of dent corn, and maybe about half that much sweet corn. The sweet corn will be mostly for market, and the dent corn won’t likely be for sale. But both corn crops will require companion planting with climbing beans. Since we don’t want to spend lots of time in those rows picking green beans for fresh use, we’ve picked out an assortment of pole/runner varieties that are typically grown for use as dried beans. Particularly with the dent corn, the idea is that both the husks and the beans will dry in the field before being harvested.
Last year we grew two types of pole beans, three types of bush beans, a sweet pea, a sugar snap pea, a field pea, and enough limas and butterbeans to fill about 2 quart bags of fresh shelled beans each. The only one of these that we grew with plans to use it as a dried legume was the generic variety of field peas sold by Johnny’s Select Seeds.
This year we’ll experimenting with more than 20 varieties of beans and field peas that we’ll be growing primarily for use as fresh or dried legumes. We’ll still grow three or four different types of bush green beans, plus some sugar snap peas, but the nice thing about growing beans and field peas for dried use is you don’t have to worry about continuous harvest.
Also on the list: Lots of limas and fava beans, both of which can be sold fresh at market or dried and saved for later.
New this year: Potatoes. We’ll grow a 70-foot row with eight heirloom varieties selected by Southern Exposure Seed Company. We may also grow a similar row of onions.
We did pretty well on sweet potatoes last year, but that’s for later in the season.
TOMATOES AND PEPPERS
Moving some of these crops out of our 2k sqft garden means more room for tomatoes, which did quite well last season (particularly: White Cherry, Defiant and Cherokee Purple, all of which are returning). Among the new heirloom varieties we’ll be introducing in 2018 are Mortgage Lifter and Tappy’s Heritage (red/pink), Woodle (orange) and Green Giant (don’t make me tell you what color it is).
This year’s new hybrids are Black Beauty, Martha Washington and something called Atomic Grape. We’ll give Amish Paste another try as a paste tomato, but after its 2017 flop, I’m bringing in a second heirloom (Martino’s Roma) for a tryout.
If nothing else, the variety should give us different things to offer at market, and a little bit of a fallback should one or more of the varieties pull an Amish Paste on me this year.
I’m still not convinced I can grow peppers successfully, but we’ll give the bells we tried last year another try. I’m also adding an heirloom sweet bell called Carolina Wonder, which boasts some natural Nematode resistance, and I’ll stagger-plant a cayenne pepper about 80-feet downhill from the sweet pepper bed and see what happens.
SQUASH, MELONS AND CUKES
Like everyone else in the world who accidentally dropped a seed in the ground, we got plenty of Fordhook zucchinis last year, plus a goodly amount of standard yellow squash. What we really enjoyed, though — until the squash bugs flourished in July and ended our squash season a few weeks into August — were the Golden Bush Scallop patty-pans from Twin Oaks Farm in Louisa, Va. We’ll be planting more of that this season — and minding those bugs better. Our one new squash for 2018 is an early market consideration from India. It’s a small, egg-shaped squash called Desi, and it’s supposed to be ready for harvest in just 40 days.
Melons were a disaster for us last season. We only grew three mounds of watermelons and one cantaloupe, and the ripe fruits were all wiped out in one single night by raccoons. One small Sarah’s Choice cantaloupe fruit survived, and we ate it soon after. It was undistinguished. Not bad, but not special relative to what you can buy at any grocery.
We’ll give that variety another run, with more space, more plants and better care, and Crimson Sweet gets another chance to make the raccoons happy, too. Both of this year’s new introductions are aimed at market: A French honeydew type called Charentais, and a more exotic fruit called Bidwell’s Casaba.
Both of last season’s cucumbers (a slicer from the main garden and a pickling cuke Janet put in her kitchen garden) return, augmented by an early slicer called Early Fortune, and a novelty cuke called Dragon’s Egg.
I treated carrots and beets as an afterthought last year, but both exceeded my expectations. This year we’re adding varieties of both, plus radishes. And we’ll plant more onions than I did last year.
New root vegetables for 2018 include two types of beets (Flat of Egypt, an early variety at 50 days, and Bull’s Blood), two types of carrots (Black Nebula and Amarillo), and two types radishes (Cherry Belle and White Icicle). With orange, red, purple and yellow carrots, red and white radishes and standard beets, our market stand should at least be colorful.
Nothing flopped quite as as spectacularly in 2017 as did our cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli seed starts. They all got off to nice starts, but then “failed to flourish.” A few were strong enough to make it as transplants, but most didn’t, so the majority of the broccoli, cabbage and kale we harvested came from seedlings I bought at Winslett’s Market as replacements.
This year cauliflower is right out, and I’m bringing in new varieties for spring planting. These are “market varieties,” and not “storage types:” Red Acre and Golden Acre heirlooms from Southern Exposure, plus a raab broccoli called Sorento. Napa cabbages did well, so I’m using those again, and adding a second variety: Hilton Chinese. If it works out, I’ll trying second and third plantings of the other varieties later in the season.
We’ve got two types of kale still soldiering on out there today (Jan. 30th), though it looks the worse for wear. This year we’ll trying adding Lacinto kale to the mix. Swiss Chard did better than spinach, but that isn’t saying much. So spinach is out, more Swiss Chard is in, and we’ll see if we can’t make a better go of it.
This year we’ll approach lettuce less as a “take leaves when you need them” harvest and more as a “cut heads for market” harvest. So we’ll have five types: Three for early season, two for late. Plus some Raddicio, and a mix of spring greens.
Another crop that did extremely well here was okra. More specifically: Clemson Spineless, a standard variety developed right here in Pickens County.
This year we’ll try new okras and see what else works well here. The emphasis is on types of okra that people don’t see so often. So in addition to Clemson Spineless, this year we’ll be planting two “red” okras (Jing and Burgundy), a strongly flavored, stubby “Okree” (Star of David) and a mild, slender okra (Emerald) that was developed by the Campbell Soup Company in the mid-20th century. Campbell’s went around developing plant varieties specifically for its products, then encouraged truck farmers to grow them. I didn’t know that.
The scale of our okra production is a little intimidating to me. Last year Janet and I couldn’t come close to eating the okra produced by about 16 linear feet of planted okra. This year we’ll plant almost 10 times that much. They’re not hard to grow, but just picking two 70-foot rows of okra is going to be a job. If they sell at market, it’s worth it. If they don’t, well… life lessons.
Instead of common oats — a good cover crop we planted with field peas and with clover in mixes — this year we’re planting one plot of hulless oats. If this simplifies the processing — as some writers swear — then oats might become a staple. Stay tuned.
Amaranth grew well here and was really pretty last summer, so we’re growing some again. Not sure why, other than it looks cool. Buckwheat will get another run, but just as a cover crop and honeybee treat.
This year’s wheat planting will be a small plot about the size of an economy-car parking space. But the wheat itself is interesting: It’s Emmer — aka “Pharoah’s Wheat.” This is genetically diverse, “landrace” wheat, the kind that people don’t have trouble digesting (unlike “improved” modern wheat). Baker Creek has a supply of this rare ancient grain, so we’re growing this crop solely to produce seeds for future planting.
We’re going to try peanuts, too, and on a pretty big scale. I’ll grow about 20 row-feet of Carolina African Runner, the “original” American peanut, and about 50 feet of Tennessee Red Valencia.
Last but not least, we’re going to try a thing called Aunt Molly’s Ground Cherry. Just to see.
While we’d hoped and planned to build a chicken run and add birds to our operation (with forage plantings for grazing), those plans hit a snag. There’s a big derelict farm implement where the chicken coop was supposed to be, and since that still hasn’t been relocated, I’ve decided that this is probably not the year to start an egg operation.
Janet bought us a do-it-yourself greenhouse kit. We’ll be putting that up soon.
Twenty-five to 50 bushels of grain corn isn’t really a lot, but it’s enough to require a corn crib. Most corn cribs are designed to hold at least 10 times that much, so the one I’ll build will be much smaller and more manageable.
Growing potatoes and sweet potatoes and winter squash, etc., means we’ll need curing space and storage space. Curing space is gonna be dicey, but for storage space I’m planning to build a “root cellar.” By which I mean that we’re planning to dig a hole and bury an old chest freezer in it. Here’s hoping that does the trick.
All in all, it’s a big upgrade from 2017, incorporating a bunch of lessons we learned. We expect more lessons, and understand that they won’t all likely be pleasant. How will it turn out? Who knows?
But off we go.