Urban homesteading: what can you do in the winter?

All of us COVID-gardeners who discovered (or rediscovered) our love for gardening during 2020 may be feeling a bit of empty nest syndrome right now. The garden is well and truly over unless you have a greenhouse or live in a non-freezing zone. And if you’re like me, you’ve already planned the hell out of next year’s garden.

There are still plenty of gardenish or at least homesteading-related activities you can do during winter, though.

Growing Indoors

The most obvious move is to bring some of the garden vibe indoors. I’ve never started seeds indoors, but in March I plan to start a bunch of hot peppers and exotic tomato varieties. So I already had a grow light and a setup for doing that. Why not get some practice in ahead of time?

So right now I’ve got a pot with 2 peach ghost pepper seedlings, and a second pot where a Count Dracula pepper JUST poked up out of the soil. I shall name him Vlad the Poker. Come spring, these peppers should be nice mature plants, and can either go out into the garden, or just stay indoors. But growing them has already helped me get the hang of setting my light timer and using a heat pad.

I could have started with herbs and I do actually have a little herb garden I planted out today. But hot peppers are nice to do this with because one or two is a significant harvest, so a single plant is all you need.

Canning

You don’t have to wait for your own harvest if you’re new to canning and want to practice. The first time I made rosemary peach jam was with a bunch of peaches I got at Costco. You might even be able to find canning supplies such as mason jars and lids, that were in short supply this year at the height of the season.

Dehydrating

It’s nice to run the dehydrator during the cold months. Not only is the drier air helpful to the dehydrating process, the heat generated by the dehydrator helps warm my kitchen. I’ll be making a batch of beef jerky this weekend, and just finished a batch of dehydrated marshmallows (not sure I’m a fan but the dehydrating group I belong to was going crazy about them so I had to give it a try. If nothing else, they’ll be good in a hot cup of cocoa.

Learning

Reading, research, schooling. I’m spending the off-season on YouTube, and planning to take the Joe Gardener Master Seed Starting course. There are so many great gardening books, too, and my book collection is growing during this time when my garden cannot.

Plan for Next Year

Pretty much as soon as the garden season ended, I was in Excel and various gardening apps, planning out the garden for 2021. It’s a smart move to do this as much in advance as possible, so that you can order any special seed varieties you’ve got your eye on BEFORE the spring rush.

That being said, a lot of the details planned over the winter go out the window come planting time. And that’s OK! The important thing is that you’re learning things, and having a way to keep your gardening flame alive throughout the winter.

Things I learned about gardening during COVID

I’ve had a sort-of garden in our yard for years. Some years I try to use it, and some years I don’t. I haven’t caught COVID this year, but like so many people, I caught an aggressive case of the gardening bug. And this time, gardening worked out for me. I watered enough, I managed pests, and I reaped some harvest. Nothing crazy, but it was enough to catapult me into the obsession zone. Once I’m in that mode, there’s no turning back. So here are some things I learned about gardening when the garden became not just a side chore but a significant focus.

Gardening is Easy

Gardening isn’t rocket science. You water the right amount, plant at the right time in a location where the plant will get enough sun, and it generally works out. In years past, I didn’t water regularly. Or weed. Or watch out for the beginnings of infestations.

Sometimes, though, the neglected plants thrive without our “help”. The fact that so many people find tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, or squash growing on their compost pile should tell you all you need to know about how good plants are at taking care of themselves.

That said…

Gardening is Hard

You can water too much. You can water too little. Same with fertilizing.

I grow in zone 5b, and this year we had a frost in June, followed by a heatwave. There are hail storms, droughts, and early frosts in the fall. You can strive mightily with shade cloth and hoop rows with plastic coverings, and triumph over some of that, but it’s a lot of work.

Pests arrive to enjoy the fruits of your labor. Maybe you’ll stop them, maybe you won’t. Maybe a groundhog will come in the night and chew up all your greens. A squirrel or skunk may decide your tomatoes are their tomatoes. You can do everything right and still watch your zucchini slowly succumb to powdery mildew.

Sometimes, no matter what you do, things won’t work out. And despite that…

Gardening is Therapy

This was especially true during lockdown, but having something to do that got me outside regularly was such an important part of getting through this year with my emotions intact. This is one reason I don’t care that gardening, especially your first year setting up raised beds and bringing in soil, can be expensive. As an introvert suddenly faced with an always home family, that quiet time outside was a life-saver.

Any hobby worth its salt also offers some level of zen. Something to take your mind off whatever else is going on at the time. One way gardening accomplishes this is by being such a remarkably deep discipline. There is SO MUCH to learn, because…

Gardening is Educational

Gardening will teach you about taking care of plants, yes. Even just that is a lifetime of learning. But it also taught me about insects in my area. About soil health and the environment. I learned that fall leaves contain trace minerals from deep in the soil, and that we should think twice about bagging them up and sending them to the dump.

A lot of what I learned is general ecological information, but I also got to know my specific micro-biome. I learned what grows well in my yard, and what doesn’t. What we grow well and use, as well as what we may grow successfully, but nobody in the house really wants to eat. I learned about the compass orientation of my yard, and saw what a big difference adding a birdbath made to the local wildlife.

And then to preserve the harvest, I experimented with three ways to ferment and pickle green beans. I made watermelon jelly, and watermelon fruit leather. I learned how to make black garlic. And that there are a million different types of garlic, and they all taste incredibly different than the one kind you find at every grocery store.

I started to explore the world of super-hot peppers, and fermented hot sauces. And seed saving.

Despite everything I learned this year…

If we have to feed our family off my garden, we’re screwed

My garden was about 100 square feet total. It sounds big, but it’s not. I had 6 tomato plants that were more successful than any tomatoes I’ve ever grown, but it really doesn’t produce all that much. Green beans did really well, as did our watermelon, but canning and freezing those doesn’t amount to even a week of sustenance. The mentality that you’re going to feed yourself off an urban garden is, in my opinion, only going to make you feel unsuccessful.

Anything you grow is good. Anything you grow is healthier and fresher than what you can buy at the grocery store. It comes with a sense of accomplishment and ownership. It helps with the food miles problem. All those reasons are reason enough to grow as much of your own food as you can.

Granted, next year’s garden will be bigger. I’ve learned a lot and will almost certainly see a bigger haul. But I’m not going to think of it as something I could rely on. And hopefully I’ll never have to. Hopefully we continue to have the luxury of getting to garden, and not having to garden.

Know Your Enemy: Garden Insects

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

– Sun Tsu, The Art of War

Back in 2017 when I was a less serious and more neglectful gardener, I experienced an infestation of squash bugs. I didn’t know what they were, and I wasn’t visiting my garden daily, so by the time I saw them, they were EVERYWHERE. I was completely grossed out and pulled up the whole garden. I was done for the year. Gave up. Threw in the trowel.

Things changed with the arrival of the 2020 pandemic gardening season. Because we were in lockdown, I was out there at least 5 minutes every day. I also got on a learning kick, and studied at the feet of YouTube gardening channels, Facebook groups, podcasts, and a good half dozen new books. It was on one of the groups that someone mentioned the Insect ID app.

I was about to start knowing the face of my enemy. And my friends as well; only about 3% of insects are pests in the garden. The rest are either harmless or downright beneficial. Insect ID has an annual cost, but it’s been worth it. Not only has it helped me identify when a bad actor is in my garden, it’s got a Pokemon “catch ’em all” element to it that makes it fun to identify new bugs.

For example, during one garden inspection, I came upon two little yellow beetles on my cucumber. I was immediately suspicious, and took a mug shot. With beetles in the garden, it’s totally guilty until proven innocent. And sure enough, they were anything BUT innocent. Striped cucumber beetles. Knowing this allowed me to research my enemy and fight them. I went out every day with a little bowl of water to which I’d added a drop of dish soap. Chopstick in hand, I’d creep up on my prey and knock them into the water. Along the way, I discovered a couple spotted cucumber beetles. All told, I killed more than 90 cucumber beetles this way. If I hadn’t known what they were and how to attack them, I would have had a repeat of 2017 for sure.

Not THIS time, squash bug!

I soon learned that almost every beetle you see in the garden is an issue. But not ALL of them. Obviously ladybugs are allies, but I also found predatory beetles and harmless ones like a stag beetle, that I was able to confidently leave in peace. Everybody wins.

Through paying greater attention to the insects in the garden, I noticed multiple species of bees, a very cool 4-toothed mason wasp who stopped by the birdbath for a drink, and some really weird slugs with their own convertible tops.

Four-toothed mason wasp

And of course… I learned to recognize the squash vine borer moth. It wouldn’t end up mattering that I knew this creature, and all the research and treatment measures I put into place couldn’t save the multiple squash, zucchini, and pumpkin plants that fell to the spawn of this deceptively beautiful insect.

Her wicked highness, the squash vine borer moth

This is a prime example of needing to know both your enemy and yourself. Next year, I’ll be taking all the preventative measures but have also ordered varieties of squash that are known to be more resistant to borers. The way a borer destroys a squash is to bore into those hollow stems and just start eating in relative safety. I gotta hand it to them, that’s a great strategy. Consequently, squash varieties with thicker or non-hollow stems give the borer more trouble. These include Long Island Cheese Pumpkin, Cucuzzi Squash, Waltham Butternut, and Striped Zucchini.

Mantidfly, most definitely an ally!

The app doesn’t always identify the insect correctly, and it can be frustrating when it doesn’t. Like in the case of the mantidfly, I had to take that picture to another forum to find out what it was. But it gets most of them right, and really adds an element of study to my gardening effort. It’s relatively expensive in a world of 99 cent apps, but for me it was money well spent.

Black swallowtail caterpillar on dill. Not great news for the dill, but exciting to see in the garden!

2020 Garden Recap

I’m going to do a quick recap of 2020’s garden season and be done with it, because there are other apocalyptic homestead topics to be discussed.

Our first planting date is May 4 or so. I actually didn’t plant anything then, but started thinking about things.

It was Memorial Day weekend when things really happened. BOOM, baby! Since I was a few weeks late, I planted a lot of seedlings from local greenhouses.

In addition to resurrecting the old 4×12 bed, I added another 4×8 bed. I used a composite raised bed system that was pretty expensive. I’d decided to go that route because the former raised beds had become ugly and rotted. I figured if I was going to WANT to be in the garden all the time, it would need to look really good.

That 4×8 end bed is magical for peppers, eggplants, and as it turned out, a watermelon that went nuts, cascaded down the landscaped slope, and wound up producing over 120 pounds of watermelon. I got more sweet peppers than I could handle, and a bunch of eggplants. Sadly, I didn’t plant any hot peppers this year, but I sure know where to plant them next time!

Then in June we had a frost, followed by a heat wave, and the peas were all set with that. The green beans did great though. And the 6 tomato plants I put in did, too! That was a surprise; normally I have no luck with tomatoes. I wasn’t even going to try, but one of my husband’s coworkers expressed incredulity that we weren’t growing tomatoes. So I caved and did it, and I’m glad I did! For whatever reason, I had no disease or pest issues with them at all. Except for one tomato hornworm, and I don’t really count him, since he only ate one tomato leaf before being apprehended.

In late August I planted a fall garden consisting of another crop of green beans and radishes. I tried cucumbers in both the spring and fall, and didn’t have much luck with them. Certainly not the rumored piles and piles of cucumbers one’s supposed to have!

The other thing I planted for the fall garden was more square footage. I lengthened the main bed to 4×16, and created a new 2×12 bed along the back porch. The 2×12 will be mainly tomatoes next year, and edamame.

And then fall frosts started to happen. I was ready for gardening to be over for the year. I amended the beds with compost and mulched them heavily. I added biochar, too. Fancy! Oh, and planted a LOT of fall garlic.

The biggest harvests were zucchini (before the borers and the powdery mildew got the plant), green beans, which we ate raw, steamed as a side dish at dinner, and pickled.

And the watermelon. The problem with watermelon is that it mostly ripens all at once, and there aren’t a lot of good ways to preserve it. I canned a lot of watermelon jam and watermelon jelly, and experimented with watermelon fruit leather (never again). You can bring half of a 46 pound watermelon over to a friend’s house as a “gift” once, but you can’t really do it three times.

By the time we were dealing with the last of it, we were all super sick of watermelon, and feeling grateful that some small rodent had tunneled into one of the 4 melons, ruining it. Thank you, little guy.

So bottom line, 2020 was by far my most successful garden ever, and we’ll be enjoying canned salsa, jam, and pickles into the winter. I started pretty late in the season, and by all accounts this was a very weird year weather-wise. We had watering restrictions that started in August and we’re actually still under. Late frosts, early heatwaves.

One of multiple batches of watermelon jelly

I’m really looking forward to 2021. I’ll have more garden space, and like I said, I’ve amended the beds. That’s a step I never took before. I also never planted garlic before. Next year I’ll be keeping a closer account of what the garden produces, and I expect it to produce a lot more.

Plus, our apple tree never bloomed this year. It’s a self-pollinating Dwarf McIntosh, and it has given us an apple before, so I think that was probably due to my traumatizing it early in the season by dropping another tree on it and breaking a main branch. 🙁 It seemed to focus on growth this year, as it got significantly larger. So hopefully it’s looking forward to next year, too. Because there are a MILLION things you can do with apples!

Garden Dreaming

At the time I’m writing this, it’s one of the coldest days of the year, kicking off at -8. I like winter more than summer, but at this point, even I am growing weary of shoveling snow and being cold. My truck’s battery died on New Years Eve; even the cars are tired of it.

This is the time of year when the seed catalogs start arriving. Expert marketing by seed companies, I have to say. Everything’s buried in snow and freezing cold, and these colorful catalogs show up promising life and spring and fruitfulness. Never mind that I know I’m not a great gardener, to the point that I’ve decided to officially support the local farms instead of trying to grow my own tomatoes.

I could be growing things in the window… but maybe not, because it’s SO cold out right now, I don’t even like to stand near the windows. You can feel the cold just washing in. So maybe I leave that for February.

I’m learning that winter in general is hard when you’re obsessed with homesteading. It’s chilly in the house, so the SCOBY’s being sluggish, and the second ferment kombuchas aren’t carbonating the way they were in the summer. I don’t feel like pickling anything because all the green beans at the grocery store look like ass. Really the only thing I HAVE managed to do is turn 7 pounds of meat into beef jerky. At least I still have that.

It’s worse this year because we’re looking to move by summer, and I have no idea what that’s going to look like. It’s not like I can plan out a garden, which is probably what I’d be doing right now most years. I can’t bring myself to throw the catalogs away, but for now I’m sort of just ignoring them.

On top of it all, the real estate market also grinds to a halt in the wintertime, so there isn’t even anything to look at. I had this fantasy in my head last fall that in December, when everyone else had stopped looking, the perfect property would pop up on the market and we’d swoop in to score it because WE… we were ready! Yeah, no. Nobody around here wound up in trouble with the mafia and needing to sell immediately so they could skip town.

All these factors have sort of taken the wind out of my sails, hence the reduced blogging frequency. I don’t know what other modern homesteaders do during the off season, but I guess for me right now, looking forward has to be the plan. If we pull off this house acquisition, things will start to get real busy. So probably by then I’ll look back fondly at this lull.

Although, I did make my own bread for the first time… and used my own jams to make thumbprint cookies for a holiday party. Also we had chili for dinner last night that I’d put up weeks ago from a double batch. Everybody loved it, and it was really nice to benefit twice from that work. It prompted me to order a new Freezer Recipes book off Amazon. So yeah, there have been successes when I stop and think about it.

I’ve also been enjoying my latest playtime with 7 Days to Die. For the first time in 5 years playing, I’ve gotten to the point where I’m making bullets (normally I just stick with the bow as my weapon of choice). Watch out, zombies, I’m building a motorbike next!

Planting a Fall Garden in Zone 5

So it wasn’t just me; gardening this year sucked in general. I found several discussions on Twitter and on Facebook forums. Talk of melons dying on the vine and pepper plants failing to produce. But one thing I noticed a lot of people saying was that NOW, in mid-September, their plants were suddenly producing, fruiting, and flowering.

Then I got a promotional email from Burpee Seed Co. with a sale on “fall garden” planting. I figured, what have I got to lose, right? You saw how I leveled my garden in frustration the other day. It’s totally primed for planting. And the brussels sprout that’s been languishing in there since May seems to have finally decided to grow. It’s over a foot tall now.

It was a torturous wait, ordering those seeds, as 4 days of perfect growing weather slipped by. But I had no seeds left over from other seasons, and they’re long gone from the local stores. Now that’s one issue I’m going to make sure I never face again. Next year I’m going to be all about seed saving.

Finally, the seeds arrived, on literally the final day of the recommended planting time. I think all bets are off this year as to what the weather will do, though, so do guidelines really apply at this point? I ordered peas, carrots, and lettuce. I’m skeptical about the carrots, but these are supposedly a fast-growing variety that work for a fall crop. I’ve had great luck with spring pea crops here, so I’m optimistic about those, and lettuce is a shoo-in.

So we’re on the way. I really hope it works out with the carrots, because I want to try canning them.

Oh, the other thing I read recently is, you can take pepper plants in for the winter and they’ll come back next season. I was reading about people who have pepper plants in their fourth years or more. When it starts getting cold, I might dig up the ghost pepper and tobasco pepper that have been lazing around in the garden and bring them inside for the winter. My only hesitation is that the dirt will have those little flies that seem to show up whenever we have indoor plants. But if they can live for years that way, isn’t it sort of irresponsible to knowingly let them die?

Some people were saying they take them into the garage for the winter. I guess that could work, but don’t they need light? Also, if I keep them in a sunny window over the winter, I feel like there’s a chance that they might produce some peppers, and that’d be cool.