A new gardening year | What we plan to do differentOn February 1, 2020 by Vlad8 min read
Ever since we took the big step and ditched the city life to start our own homestead, the plan was to eventually get to a point where we could make a living off our homestead. However, we’re in no rush at the moment. Our city jobs pay fairly well, and other than us wishing we didn’t have to go to work each day, there would be no point in quitting our jobs just yet. But that is the goal, and that’s what we’re working towards.
The big dream is to grow enough food on our farm to be able to sell the surplus and make a modest income from that activity. But neither of us are farmers and we don’t have any experience with running a farm, growing huge amount of crops or marketing our products. We also didn’t want to bite more than we can chew right from the beginning, so we’re slowly scaling up our vegetable garden as our experience and confidence grow.
Expanding our garden
Our first year on the homestead we were so busy with renovating the house, we barely had time for any gardening. We still ended up planting just a few plants, to see how they cope with the unworked clay soil on the property and the local weather.
Last year, our second year here at the Valhalla homestead, we started our first vegetable garden. The soil was horrible, densely compacted clay soil that had never been farmed before. We didn’t want to put any money into buying compost. Instead, we planned to work on improving our garden soil, using only time, locally available materials and nature.
We tried a few different gardening styles on our 14 small garden beds to see which yields the best results. To our surprise, almost all the things we planted grew really nice and gave us great crops. These experiments taught us a lot about what we can grow here, so this year, we want to use this knowledge to make an even better garden. Bigger, better planned and with a slight head-start in terms of soil fertility.
Amending our clay soil
If you know anything about soils, it should come as no surprise that the best way to improve the tilth and fertility of clay soil is to add massive amounts of organic matter to it. Whether it’s in the form of broken down compost or through heavy mulching.
Our ruth stout garden beds yielded the best results in terms of how big the transformation was for the soil in that area. Since we own a large pasture, but we have no grazing animals, we had plenty of hay for mulching and experimenting. I’m a great advocate for the no-dig gardening method, but without access to huge amounts of compost, we had no choice but to till the land.
Tilling a layer of broken down hay mulch into the ground then mulching it with another hefty layer of hay, gave the best results on our farm. Now that we know what works best, and we also invested money into a rotor tiller, we have everything we need to scale this up.
Ploughing in the fall
After we finished harvesting last year, we tilled the garden for the first time. Since this was easier than digging by hand, we also expanded our growing area a bit. This will also give us a chance to see how the previously worked part of the garden will compare to the newly expanded area where no additional organic matter was added.
Our hobby tiller can’t go too deep in the ground, and that’s not our main goal here. We still want to build fertile soil on top of the clay soil we have now, but breaking this upper layer down, greatly improves the drainage and how deep the plants can bury their roots. Last year’s broken down mulch layers also got mixed in with the clay soil and this will help prevent compaction the future.
Ploughing in the fall, in our climate, has a huge advantage. Over the winter, the water in the soil freezes expands and breaks apart the clay chunks into tiny grains. This will make tillage much easier in the spring. The plan is to break everything down as best as possible, then use a shovel to create sunken paths between our semi-raised beds. This way, our plants will have a thicker layer of soil that is better suited for their roots.
Starting new garden areas
Everything I described above, only focuses on our classic vegetable garden. But that’s not all we’re growing this year. Our hugelkultur beds are now one year old and I expect we’ll have great results with them this year. Making them was a great way to use the rotten wood logs we had on the farm, while also creating new growing spaces to experiment with and providing us with the best leaf dumping site we could ask for.
We also started converting our orchard into a food forest, which will almost double our growing area, although not in the form of conventional garden beds. We already have strawberries, kale and a few types of berries planted in the food forest, and this year we’ll start adding more perennials and self-seeding plants that will continue to thrive there.
Growing potatoes didn’t work out for us enough to be worth the effort. We had problems with mice eating the potatoes and colorado beetles eating all the leaves. All in all, it’s cheaper for us to buy those potatoes then to trying to grow them. These were planted on a different patch of land, and this year we’ll use that same spot to plant a large number of green onions and garlic, as I expect these crops to sell really well.
Market research for our garden
This is a great segway into what our financial plans are for this year. As I’ve said at the beginning of this article, we want to slowly transition into selling enough vegetables to make a modest income. But, we have no idea what that means until we prospect our market and see what we could sell, in what quantities and how much money that will make us.
Our 2020 garden is nowhere near big enough for a farmer’s market. But we will grow more of each vegetable than we can eat ourselves, and we plan to sell the extra surplus to our friends and co-workers. Think of it as an online farmer’s market. I’ll go into more details about this business plan, after crunching this year’s numbers. The general idea is to have our clients fill out their order in an online spreadsheet, and make deliveries of fresh vegetables once a week when I go to work.
I’m hoping that by doing this and keeping a close record on my part of the demand we had and the highest prices we can get for our harvests, I will be able to figure out a better crop plan for 2021. That will be the first time when I’ll be able to tell if making an income from this business model is feasible for us and to see how much growing space we would actually need to do this full time.
New vegetable varieties
One of the key sell points of our farm model will be the types of vegetables we grow. Aside from the high-demanded onions, parsley, salads type of vegetables, we want to focus on growing more uncommon varieties, including local heirlooms and more exotic heirloom seeds from Baker’s Creek. We have quite a few unique veggies planned for this year and we hope that their novelty will appeal to our future clients.
We also talked with a few grannies and asked for local heirloom seeds that they had been growing for generations. These are some of the best-tasting tomatoes ever, but they have a short shelf life. But since we’ll always be harvesting the day before delivery, that won’t be a problem in our case. We only use homemade compost as fertilizer and natural pest control, which is something that is getting more and more appreciation in our area in the past years.
We’ll also plant our first bed of asparagus, so we’re only 4-5 years away to our first potential asparagus harvest. Keep your fingers crossed for me on this one, as I never tried to grow this before and I’m not sure how it’s going to go.
Having the right tools for the job
Gardening, like any other hobby or activity, also requires a lot of tools. You never think about it, all the spades, shovels, tillers, greenhouse, buckets, etc that you use on a farm, add up to quite a bit of money. Buying the rototiller was the biggest investment for us last year, but considering all the other small tools and gadgets, I’d say we spent quite a bit of money on gardening tools.
The good part is that we now have them. We’re better prepared for this year’s gardening journey. We have the right tools for the job and a lot of ways to make our lives easier. Having a pump for irrigation, a rototiller to work the soil, handtools and a greenhouse, all these enable us to do things we couldn’t do last year.
This whole homesteading thing is an adventure for us. It’s unknown territory that we only dreamt of in past years and now it’s finally becoming a reality. We learn as we go and with each passing year our farm starts to look better and be more fertile. This has been and will continue to be an amazing experience for us and I don’t think we’d ever want to go back to before.
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We (Vlad & Greti) are building a home on a homestead in a rural area of Romania in Western Europe and sharing our story as two passionate gardeners who ditched the city for a simpler, better life.