This is the Absolom Autrey (Autry) Dog trot cabin, now a museum, in Selma, Louisiana. It was built in 1849 by my many-times-great-uncle, back when homesteading wasn’t a lifestyle choice, but the only choice for survival.  On their two hundred acres, they grew cotton and corn for cash and grew a vegetable garden, raised livestock, and hunted game for food.

Fast forward  160 years, and that’s about when my brother became a “prepper.” Which is sort of another word for homesteading.  At any rate, we were down at his place in Texas last Spring for a cookout. Except for the ribs, everything we ate he had grown, and the food was amazing.  A few weeks later, some bad storms blew through, and my sister-in-law posted a picture of Walmart’s near-empty produce section with the comment “This is why we Prep!” Point taken; a little self sufficiency may not be a bad thing.

Empty Produce Section

Gardening – aka Homesteading 101

Growing your own food is like homesteading 101. It’s kind of the basis for self-sufficiency; the ability to feed yourself.  So late in the Spring, a little too late actually, we started a Straw Bale Garden.  Why straw bales? Because if I’m going to garden, I’d rather not be at it every waking hour of the day. Supposedly straw bales mean less weeding and feeding, and quicker harvesting.  With automated watering, it’s very little work. And it’s about 18 inches off the ground, so rabbits and buggy things tend to overlook your garden. 

Green tomatoes in a homesteading garden

We planted tomatoes and peppers, cucumbers, pole beans, squash, and leafy greens.  A few other things as well. Let me go on record right here and now as saying this whole gardening thing is not as easy as you’d think. 

The squash plants got so heavy they literally fell out of the bales. The cucumber plant grew to a truly astonishing size, and rather crowded out the peppers, who got almost no sun at all.  So we had peppers about the size of a tennis ball.  I left the radishes in the ground too long, and they were completely inedible. I’ve never tasted anything quite like that, and hope to never do so again.   The tomatoes split; they were still edible and can-able, but they sure weren’t pretty.  Except for about 10,000 cucumbers, a decent amount of tomatoes & some Basil, we actually harvested very little. But we learned a lot, and we have a lot of pickles.

Grow a Garden, Take Two

The biggest lesson we learned last year is that eight straw bales is not enough space to grow much of anything. Lesson number two was that cucumbers need to be grown in a barrel, away from other plants.   Another is that insects fly. The little suckers will find your garden, then proceed to drill holes in your tomatoes. Yet another lesson is that coastal grass can grow anywhere, including through an 18 inch tall straw bale. By the end of the season,  our bales looked more like  a fuzzy hill than a garden. And pulling them loose from the grass was no small feat, either. So, this time, we’re putting down landscaping fabric under the gardening area & covering the space in between the rows with mulch.

Prepping the Garden Site

An Early Start

This year,  we are better prepared, and starting early.  One of the supposed benefits of Straw Bale gardening is that the heat in the bales allows for early planting.  So yesterday I ordered seeds and growing trays from Burpee. We’re starting the plants indoors next weekend. They will go into the bales the first week of March, covered with a plastic tent to keep the frost off.   For plants with a short harvest time, we can get two crops in before it’s too late to plant.   We are paying attention to the size of the mature plants, so our vegetables won’t grow over each other.  Finally, I’m taking some advice from the Morning Chores blog, and limiting the number of veggies we are growing in the garden.

Plant Selection

On the cover of the Burpee catalog is a gorgeous tomato plant called “Atlas” that grows beefsteak tomatoes on a “bushy and compact” plant.  Yup, that’s what I need; plants that don’t grow up into a 30 square foot behemoth & kill off all their neighbors.  So I scoured the catalog and found some amazing things; cucumbers that won’t ever be bitter, radishes that you can leave in the ground, and even corn that can be grown in a whiskey barrel!  There are also many plants designated as “compact” or “ideal for patios” that will probably work better in our small garden. I’m pretty certain that more attention to plant selection will improve our harvest.

Let’s Try This Again

I’m considering this spring to be another practice round; hopefully we will be more successful this year.  Since we won’t be moved out to Tanglefoot yet, our garden will be small, simply because our yard is small.  However, I’m going to move the herbs out of the bales so we have more room for other things. I also have an old radio flyer wagon that I’m going to use for a pollinator garden, but that’s another post.

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