Many of the accomplishments that I listed in my first post depend heavily on background elements for success. All of these areas are a constant work in progress - we will never be done learning and we will surely never stop refining the process. We are not by any means experts, and we certainly don't profess to be, oh no! We are students hungry for more knowledge and in seeking that, we are slowly realizing how interconnected each element of our lifestyle is. Nothing is independent - everything is connected. I think that is the biggest surprise in this journey of ours... no single element stands alone. If we can step away from this whole journey with just that one piece of knowledge, then I think we've learned what's important.
So, what are the background elements? In no particular order....
Currently, as it's winter here, we spread straw (carbon) in the coop, effectively making our version of a Throwback At Trapper Creek "chicken greenhouse" and a Joel Salatin "carbonaceous diaper". This layering forms thick, deep bedding that decomposes (and gives off heat) but doesn't smell offensively. It's great stuff for the garden! In warmer weather, we rotate our chickens through different parts of our garden and "orchard" at different times of the year for different purposes:
4) In situ fertilization
Once the garden is fully harvested in fall, we spread huge quantities of compost, manured straw and brown leaves on top in preparation for the winter snow cover. We also empty all our compost bins and add every scrap of organic material we can find until the first snow fall. All winter long, some serious "cooking" goes on in the garden under the snow while we continue to collect household compostables using my repurposed/scrounged garbage bin system. Spring eventually comes and melts the snow on the garden where we see 6 months of hidden composting revealed in all it's glory. Three cheers for lazy, on site composting!
* Water treatment. Our well produces enough water for our household needs plus it's enough to water the animals and the garden (though thanks to soil improvement and mulching we've made it 2 years without having to water past seedling stage). Our raw water is VERY high in sulphur and sodium so we have invested in a treatment system to deal with those issues which frees us from trucking water in for the cistern or buying bottled water. The initial investment will soon be recouped by the money saved by NOT bringing water in. We keep our 3700 gallon underground cistern full strictly for back up water (in case of well problems) and for fire protection (no hydrants out here!).
* Water collection (ongoing). To date, we have simply re-routed downspouts to deposit water in better places (namely, the food producing gardens). This Spring will see recycled/upcycled barrels (on hand) and our old basement water holding tank installed outside to better harvest and utilize the free water falling from the sky. Between the house and detached garage (1450 sq ft each), the coop and the other outbuildings, we'll have all the water we need for the animals and garden without ever turning on a tap. I'm also designing a produce wash station out by the garden with the intention of re-routing the grey water to the garden/orchard. Washing produce away from the garden makes no sense!
* Using free or second hand materials. This is really important! Customizing our home and property can get very costly so we use second hand/free materials whenever possible. Our best local sources are Freecycle & kijiji. Hubby also bought used materials from work last year, which has provided a GREAT stockpile of trusses, lumber, timbers, posts, etc. When we find free materials, we take them even if we have no immediate need because we have room to store them. This is proving to be wise, because we have a fantastic stockpile of organized materials at the ready for any need/project. I also use loads of repurposed items in the home but that's another post...
* Garden Season Extenders. This is huge here on the Alberta prairie. Weather is by far the number one variable that I need to have more control over the effects of (or at the very least, the illusion of control). Late August of 2010 saw me crying in the tomato patch... I lost EVERY single tomato from a bumper crop to a hard overnight frost. This is the day, early in our time here, that I learned the valuable, life changing lesson that temperatures out here in the country can be 8-10 degrees COLDER than in the city. Not wanting to repeat THAT mistake again, I now prepare accordingly (and prudently!). Season extenders are serious business here...
Currently, we have 3 cold frames (soon to hit the ground once again), 2 small hoop houses as well as plans (free from an old library book) and used materials (bought VERY cheaply or free) to construct a long 3 sided solarium/greenhouse on the south side exterior wall of the garage. Kelly is planning to begin this project on his next set of days off (next week) and I can't tell you how EXCITED I am! As well as seed starts, the intention is to plant my tomatoes and other heat loving, frost sensitive crops directly in the ground in there, reducing (dare I say eliminating) losses due to late Spring and early Fall frosts. Living in rural Alberta means that frost could (and does) come any time from August to June. *sigh*
* Garden Infrastructure. With the local dogs, cats, deer and other wild animals that frequent our land, creating secure perimeter garden/hen fencing was essential. We chose 6' wire "deer fence" for it's non-permanence, functionality and lack of required maintenance. I use the fencing as support for my climbers (beans, peas, cukes) and tall plants (fava beans) reducing the need for staking, but also, those climbers create lovely perimeter walls of green that effectively block wind and raise the temperature inside the garden. It's also just plain LOVELY to enter the garden as it feels a lot like walking into an expansive outdoor room thanks to the lush green walls.
* Preserving Food. 2011 was the first year that I purposed to preserve in a BIG way. We doubled our garden size and this meant that the harvest was ENORMOUS. Our goal was to make it to Spring with our stockpile of preserved/stored veggies/fruit. Not wanting anything to go to waste and in order to try to reach that goal, I canned, blanched, stored, froze and dehydrated FULL TIME for many weeks. So far, we are holding our own, eating mostly out of the pantry, freezer and "cellar", although I've learned that I overestimated how many pounds of potatoes we'd need and underestimated how many pounds of carrots we'd need. This year's plantings will be adjusted to reflect that.
* Finding and Nurturing Relationships with Local Farmers. Finding local producers of pastured meats and organic grain has been key to meeting our food goals. I cannot possibly convey strongly enough how important this is to us. If we can't (or choose not to) produce the kind of meat/grain we wish to consume, it is vital that we support those who CAN and DO produce it! Eatwild.com is a good resource, but also, referrals from trusted sources have been very important in our research and decision making process.
* Learning New Skills. We challenge ourselves to make what we need as often as we can. It's getting easier as time goes by to break the habit of paying for an item or a service that what we think we need. Usually, a little effort and small investment of time can produce a better quality result that fits our needs better than anything bought from the store or hired out. Skills like sewing, mending, soap making, simple car repairs, home maintenance, basic carpentry, plumbing, construction, etc.. all help to fill our "skills tool box" and our "knowledge bank".
These background elements have been wonderful learning for us. Hard work, yes, but it feels incredible to have accomplished so much in 2.5 years, especially since we have renovated our entire home (inside and out) at the same time. My husband has done nearly all the work himself on top of working full time, so to say that it's been busy would be an understatement!
We've faced these challenges head on and have build a solid foundation for a more self sufficient lifestyle. We have so much more to accomplish, and many more changes to make, but the important thing, is that at the end of each year, we can say that we have made appreciable progress. We look forward to what the 2012 growing season will teach us here at Little Home In The Country as we continue to move toward our goals :)
Thanks for reading and stay tuned for Part 3!