Self-sufficiency in a kitchen garden: Part 3

Why this series?

It’s a strange fact that growing ones own food is about the least profitable use of one’s time, whilst being the most rewarding.

Tip # 11: Gardening is the single most important step towards a self-sufficient lifestyle

P1060184Running a kitchen garden has real costs: water, mulch, seed and seedlings, compost, irrigation stuff and tools.

Against this red ink on a gardener’s ledger must be pitted savings at the greengrocery, the hardware store and the plant nursery.

One of the hardest lessons I needed to learn as a kitchen gardener was that I didn’t need industrial inputs and retail therapy to sustain the productivity of the garden.

Learn this, and the savings begin. So

Tip # 12: Skip the products – there are no magic bullets or secrets to be purchased.

P1060147Relentless advertising has convinced modern man that someone else has the secret product to cure all of his ills. Of this maddening array of costly inputs the most insidious are those from the chemical companies that support modern agriculture: herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and soluble fertilisers.

I don’t farm commercially, but I can well imagine that it must be almost impossible to produce modern crops on a vast scale to feed the masses without these products. But

Tip #13: On a backyard scale, you should farm organically – it’s cheaper.

P1060028Sometimes – particularly as you begin to improve your soil – you will need help to reverse imbalances in soil pH or deficiencies in soil trace elements. The soil may be depleted of nutrients or its structure may have been destroyed by years of abuse by previous owners. A soil test from an accredited laboratory can be helpful as you break new ground. However

Tip #14: The best fertilizer is the gardener’s shadow.

P1060031Patrol your patch. Or sit in it and let impressions reach you. There are no gardening mistakes - only experiments. Try stuff out – don’t just pour chemicals onto the problem spots. Healthy soils create healthy plants which feed healthy people. If you are going to add anything to your soil, add a good organic compost; your plants will feed off it for decades. Try not to poison Mother Nature as she gets down to work.

Tip #15: Small amounts of garden produce do make a difference to the weekly shopping bill.

P1060713A fruit tree bearing steadily is something a kitchen gardener can celebrate. It represents one small win in the unending struggle to balance the fiscal books. Keeping the cook out of the grocery store is a mark of a kitchen gardener’s success.

Self-sufficiency in a kitchen garden: Part 2

Why this series?

It’s a complex world.

P1040587Once of the great pleasures of a garden (and there are some unpleasant things) is that it allows you to disconnect from our ‘always-on’ world of mobile phones, computers, Internet, television, traffic and relentless advertising.

You need to keep this small private world simple, so

Tip #6: Buy simple but high quality gardening tools.

P1030377Good tools last a lifetime. A sturdy wheelbarrow is essential. You need not spend-up big on machinery, though a big powerful shredder is my exception to this rule – it’s an essential tool for recycling carbon in your backyard ecosystem.

Chainsaws are also useful for recycling dead branches, especially if you have a wood-fire in winter. P1030344Electric chainsaws are sturdy and always start. Small petrol engines – if used infrequently - are expensive to maintain. Petrol-driven chainsaws, lawn mowers and whipper-snippers cause more frustration and wasted time than just about anything else. So

Tip #7: When the kids have grown up, you don’t need a lawn. Plant it to vegetables. Use the front yard for fruit trees.

No lawn = no lawn mower, and more space in the garden shed. Sure, the grandkids are likely to want to run around outside (do they do that anymore?) but there are plenty of open-spaces and playgrounds in modern suburbia, maintained and watered by others. So,

Tip #8: Eat your landscape.

P1020296Many vegetables and fruit trees are highly decorative. Better a real pear tree with an annual crop than a non-fruiting ornamental one. Espalier fruit trees along the fence line to save space, as you will need to use every bit of room you can find. To this end,

Tip #9: Pull out old plants quickly.

This is particularly true if plants are unhealthy – playing doctor to plants that are in the wrong place or growing in the wrong season wastes your time, which is your most precious resource. They also take up space where something that feeds you could be growing. P1020333Other plants will simply be unsuitable for your climate; we buy more bananas than I can successfully grow, though I am trying to do better at this.

If it’s flowers and birds you want, let your vegetables run to term. They all flower, and while they may lack the spectacular blooms of floral plants, they can also delight the eye and tickle the nose.

So seed-saving is the one useful exception to Tip #9; leaving plants in the ground to run to seed is a time-honoured method of cutting costs in a garden and propagating along rare and adapted local seeds, so

Tip #10: Learn to save your own seed.


Self-sufficiency in a kitchen garden: Part 1


Why this series? Why this subject? Click here 

Back when I was a young single bloke with a head full of dreams and a few dollars in my pocket I purchased John Seymour’s book ‘The complete book of Self-Sufficiency’; life was never the same thereafter.

Looking back over the intervening forty years, I must admit that I was charmed by the drawings and the idealized lifestyle portrayed. It took me decades to realize that self-sufficiency was only for the rich, much like the formula for becoming a millionaire: “Start with $10 million and work your way down from there”

P1010950‘The complete book of Self-Sufficiency’ was written by an Englishman in England. If I needed to drain a field, jug a hare, pluck a pheasant or choose between a horse or a tractor to plough a five-acre plot in the English countryside this book would have been perfect. For a backyard gardener in the fiery climate on the Adelaide Plains in South Australia I had to start from scratch. So

Tip #1: Start soon, because it takes decades to understand your patch of soil and your local climate.

Of course, five acres in the city – where I needed a job to support a growing family –  was never going to happen, even for a dreamer like me. So

Tip #2: Buy your house for the land, not the house upon it.

I did that, and spent another thirty years fixing up the house so that the cook could suffer to live in the place. P1010916But houses can be renovated; if you don’t win some garden soil from the real-estate agent the small self-sufficiency of growing ones own fruit, herbs, eggs and vegetables will be a dream still-born.

Earning a living, studying, raising children, staying married, staying in touch with extended family and friends – these are all things that eat into a gardener’s gardening time. So

Tip #3: If you want to live off a garden, you have to live in it.

P1010876This may well be why so many folks only get gardening when they retire. If you put it off until then, you’ll find yourself surrounded by jobs that require a 35-year-old back, not a 65-year-old one.

But at a more fundamental level, kitchen gardening is a very time-consuming life-style; if watching sport on TV or endless rounds of socializing is what rocks your socks, you’d better stick with the lawn and the white roses.

If you’ve found a patch of garden behind your house that gets full sun and is not invaded by tree roots, then

Tip #4: Buy compost, not stocks and shares

P1010873Enrich and protect your soil: healthy soils produce healthy people. Kitchen gardens will win you small returns in savings at the local shops but big returns in exercise, sunshine, friendships with down-to-earth people (other gardeners), a connection to nature and the satisfaction that only growing your own food can bring.

More next week, I guess…

Self-sufficiency in a kitchen garden

IMG_20150120_211354_373Each year, for some years past, I’ve gotten a phone call in January asking me to talk about kitchen gardening at the Rare Fruit Society’s annual mini-conference. The cook gets called up too – she tells a tableful of folk all about pickling, lacto-fermenting and preserving food from the garden.

Folk who attend these evenings – and its a huge hall packed with people – have a broad interest in all things to do with home gardens. Topics range from bee-keeping, grafting, native fruits and pruning to mulches, composts, netting, figs, citrus and berries.

IMG_20150120_211421_007All good, but I’m famous for being unable to give the same talk twice, and I’d already covered seed-saving, mulching, irrigation, soils and so forth in earlier years.  Caught on the back foot, and with a decision and abstract required that very day, I had to hang up and hope for inspiration while I ate my lunch…

Perhaps peering into my lunch box – at stuff both purchased and home-grown – prompted me to talk on self-sufficiency, a subject I’ve had to bat away regularly on garden tours. It’s a suburban dream that I’ve tested harder than anyone, and I’ve never even come close to living off the garden. Therefore this year’s topic is ‘Kitchen Gardens – Living Off your Back Yard. Can it be done?

So I’ve set myself the small task of writing a series of articles about what decades of growing my own food has taught me. I burned through all 35 tips in 20 minutes at the Rare Fruit Society; I suspect it will take somewhat longer to get them into print over the coming weeks.