Feeding the Family from the Garden: Is It Possible?

Magnificent espaliered pear tree at the Cloisters

I investigated my tomato plants more closely today and to my consternation all the green tomatoes – at least 50 of them – have disappeared. The stems have been chewed through. I also found 6 chewed off stems on the eggplants. There are a lot of husks in the husk cherry bed, but no cherries.

It is unbelievably frustrating. I am quite used to being down about the fact that my garden cannot feed my family even during the growing season. I had long ago accepted that,  unless I take down each and every tree on my property, and some of the  neighbor’s trees as well, I will never be able to grow grains. But last year’s blight debacle made me cross off potatoes too, at least for this and perhaps even next year, and I can’t find room even for corn or soy beans.

But fine, sunny spots are at a high premium, so I grow high value crops in them. So I had thought we’d have at least lots of tomatoes, eggplants and peppers, at least, enough for daily eating and for putting up for winter. Instead I see  almost my entire crop go to unknown, wasteful critters.

Some days – like this one – are just palled by this feeling of failure, impatience, and a low dread. I am bewildered by the maps and projected yields of backyard homesteads in books like The Backyard Homestead: Produce all the food you need on just a quarter acre! (click on Look Inside in Amazon, go to page 13 for an example). All these ideal situations have no resemblance to my garden. My pure joy a couple of days ago when discovering the herb garden and orchard at The Cloisters in NYC too quickly dissipated when the inevitable comparisons to my own perennial garden and berry bushes.

To try to cheer myself up I tell myself that this is only my second summer gardening. I am learning daily and next year will be better again. Look around at all we’ve accomplished! It doesn’t help. It seems so insignificant. Then I tell myself that we will instead support my local foodshed by buying more at the Farmer’s Market. I do this already for fruits and corn. In case of doom descending, that local foodshed is just as important as the garden, if not more, but it is of course also more vulnerable too.

We all have days like these, no? Does it help to make a list of what is still to be done? Here goes, the most important projects:

  1. build solar dehydrator
  2. plant more seeds in empty beds, buy and barter perennials and transplant
  3. build tool shed so big shed can becomes woodworking shop
  4. build second beehive and extra boxes
  5. look into possibility of a dwarf orchard
  6. weed and prepare front garden after water leak has been fixed
  7. start planning  for chickens, if not this Fall, then next Spring.

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  1. I feel that same way too and I hope you don’t mind me saying this, I’m glad I’m not the only one. My zucchinis and tomatoes that were doing so well have blight or some unknown ailment. And I learned the lesson of the importance of good watering habits – avoid getting the leaves wet at all cost! We have put so much energy and resource into growing our garden and, for a few weeks, we had plenty of vegetables to spare. That is no longer the case. Corn was decimated by ants and aphids… I guess they say live and learn!

  2. There are two schools of thought.

    The first says that you should grow high-value-crops rather than staples, that whole foods like tomatoes or broccoli will experience the most food inflation, while bulk carbs will be the last item to worry about.

    The other school of thought looks beyond that towards increasingly strained staple crops from global warming, population, UG99, across the board food inflation due to currency collapse, etc… In that scenario, you’ll want to really look to providing a balanced diet (regardless of how unconventional or unpalatable it may be).

    You have to decide which side of the fence you want to be on, and when.

    When push comes to shove, both of us are gonna learn to love processing acorns.

  3. It’s good to vent one’s frustrations once in a while! Kim, we’re trying to do lots of things fast and with many other commitments around. What may seem like little setbacks to others are major disappointments.

    Ed, I agree we need to be more balanced. That is why I am growing lots of beans as well as the vitamins crops. Next year I might get a community garden plot and grow nothing but corn and potatoes there… Did YOU process those acorns? Mine are still sitting around in the basement…

  4. How discouraging! But, I appreciate your blogging about it because, I think these are the kinds of things we all face in one form or another. The books make it sound so much easier than it really is. I feel fortunate that we have as much land as we do, yet I don’t see how we can ever manage to grow everything we need, since it’s just the two of us and we aren’t as young as we used to be. The challenges to keep up what we do have sometimes disheartening: some things are dying because of lack of rain and plant disease. Then there are the weeds that want to choke it all out. All of my time lately is spent trying to keep up with the harvest, and I wonder what would happen if we did try to grow more, like wheat.

    Then I ask myself would I give it all up? Of course the answer is no and I press on. The blogosphere helps, knowing others out there are going through similar things.

    Big hugs to you!

  5. You mentioned that you have a lot of trees, and I wonder if you might look there for a calorie-dense food source rather than beating yourself up for not having space for grain crops.

    Ed mentioned acorns, but there are other trees that are useful for calories, too. Other nut trees (chestnut, walnut, almond) and bushes (like hazelnut), linden or basswood, which has edible leaves, and maple, of course for the high sugar content for use in making those acorns taste better ;).

    There are some other options to replace some of the more familiar calorie dense foods we all know. Perhaps instead of potatoes, you might look into Jerusalem artichokes, which are native to North America and were a staple for the indigenous people here. You can’t pick ’em and store ’em like potatoes, but you can dig them as long as the ground isn’t frozen and eat the roots, which are very potato-like and delicious. Pumpkins and long-storage squash are another easy to grow option. I prefer mashed potatoes myself, but if I’m hungry pumpkin will do well enough.

    I’ve found that I needed to start paying more attention to what people who were indigenous to this area ate, and when I started looking for those plants, I found that many of them are already here – with no effort from me ;).

  6. Leigh and Wendy, thank you for the chin-up!

    Oh, how I would love to get rid of my white oaks and pine trees. We’ve already paid big bucks removing the ones that were diseased and most in the way. I’d love to replace them with nut trees, but so far I’ve had to be happy with the hazels (three of them) which I put in this Spring and which seem to be doing well. The budget is taking on other projects, some if which are not of our choosing ;)

    I am going to look into those Jerusalem artichokes for next Spring. I’ve heard they are super invasive but I hope I can contain them in a raised bed.

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