I have wanted to write about homesteading in a northern climate for quite awhile, but it has taken me some time to organize my thoughts and how I wanted to present this topic. So let’s start here – Homestead(ing), as defined in the Webster dictionary is:
1a – the home and adjoining land occupied by a family b: an ancestral home c: home
It is a universal definition that cuts across race, religion, and bioregion. We all live somewhere, and in most instances that place is home. My home is the state of Minnesota, TurtleIsland (U$A). I have lived in Minnesota my whole life – so the hot humid summers and the cold, dark winters are a part of me and my history. There truly are four seasons where I live, and most people who live here, or somewhere similar will tell you that the changing of the seasons is one of the appealing aspects of spending your life in a place like Minnesota. Right now it is the third week of January, with a typical average temperature of around 10 – 20 degrees Fahrenheit in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Outside there is not a lot going on. Because the chickens went into this winter molting, and we do not have a light in their coop to trick their chicken – circadian rhythm, we are getting very few eggs, and the only green things growing right now are small patches of water cress located in a secret, year round fresh water spring a few miles from my house. The wood pile slowly shrinks in size as we keep ourselves warm, and our hopes and dreams of spring grow with each new seed catalog that arrives in the mail. It is true that winter in Minnesota is cold and dark (at least outside), but it is also a time of reflection and preparation for when we are reborn into the lush and verdant days of spring that are soon to come.
So what does it mean to be an Urban Homesteader/Farmer in a northern climate? What are some of the challenges we face when it comes to growing food or staying warm? What are some of the creative solutions and responses we have available to us to take on these challenges? Many pages and chapters in many different books have been devoted to these questions and solutions, so it is not my intention to go over all the details with a fine toothed comb, but rather discuss some of the generals – some of the things that have and haven’t worked for me, some goals that I am shooting for, and a bit on how this all ties in with energy descent.
Let us start with the most basic of basics – Food, or specifically how we grow it in a cold, northern climate garden. While that may sound like a silly question, there are definite steps that can be taken to insure success as a northern gardener. The first thing from my own experience that really matters is the location of the garden. Needless to say, wherever you live, garden location is the primary concern, but a northern climate garden situated in the wrong spot can be very discouraging and less than productive. We have three main gardens on our property, two of which that have great southern exposure and all day sun, and the third (which is the oldest) is shaded in the morning by a giant Red Spruce. It is this third garden which I will use to illustrate a few points about garden location.
10 years ago, when we started gardening on our new property, our yard was very different than what you see today. There were many more trees (that have since been removed by wind and chainsaw) that put limits on where we could site a garden. There has been a massive landscaping project that involved a fifty foot long swale to divert rain water from going into our basement, and there has been the purchase of the neighboring lot a few years back. All of these factors have influenced the evolution of our property and the ability for us to become more successful garden farmers.
It is the red spruce that is the main problem for this garden for two reasons – First, which is obvious, is the amount of shade that it is casting onto the garden for the first part of the day. The second problem is the proximity of the red spruce to the garden. Because it is so close, the garden soil is being slowly acidified as the needles drop to the ground. Most annual vegetables are going to do best in a soil that is close to neutral on the PH scale. So when you are working with a soil that is slightly acidified along with a significant amount of shade, quality vegetable production is going to suffer. A couple take away points then: 1) While it is impossible to always pick a perfect garden location (especially in the city), try to locate your garden south facing, with as little shade as possible. 2) Avoid spruce trees and other coniferous evergreens if at all possible.
Another aspect of a successful northern garden is acknowledging the length of the season, and picking appropriate plants that can thrive in the period of our relatively short summer growing season. It is true that a wide range of annual vegetables have been adapted to many different regions, so the selection that we have to choose from is immense. Within this vast field of genetic bio-diversity though, are proven winners – plants that will perform exceptionally well, year after year in northern latitudes.
Here is a short list of plants that we grow every year, that are dependable, high performers – potatoes, tomatoes, kale, collard greens, radishes, beets, salad, garlic, carrots, turnips, beans, and a handful of others. By having this core group of plants that have grown and produced consistent yields over the years, we have built in an insurance policy of sorts. No two growing seasons are alike. Some years are warmer, some more wet, and all the different variations on weather cycles affect how each plant will grow. One season, we may have a bumper crop of tomatoes, while the summer squash underperforms. By growing this diverse selection of annual vegetables, we help to insure a harvest of some kind from at least a portion of what we are growing.
Directly related to the varieties of vegetables and fruits we choose to grow in our gardens, is the idea of season extension. By extending our growing season through the use of cold frames, row cover, hoop houses, and solar greenhouses, we keep our diets and dinner plates supplied with fresh greens and veggies later into the season. While these indispensible tools are not scalable for every situation, they are very adaptable and realistic goals for many homesteads.
In a place like Minnesota, with the right hoop house or a well designed greenhouse, it is possible to grow food throughout the winter. These systems, when properly designed, not only allow us to grow all the veggies we are used to eating well into the cold months of winter, they also provide us with the opportunity to push gardening zones. St. Paul, Minnesota has traditionally been zone 4a, but in the last year it was upgraded to zone 4b. This is not a huge difference, but with climate change becoming a reality, I predict that the trend of improving gardening zones will continue, at least for those of us in colder regions of the world.
After scavenging and collecting materials for the last few years, I am finally entering the design phase of my future greenhouse. I am still quite a ways away from breaking ground on this project, but ultimately my hope is to have a heated, year round greenhouse that will have a fig tree or two, tea bushes, cardoons, a few perennial herbs, and raised beds for salad and braising greens. Talk about pushing zones and extending the season! Admittedly, my dreams of constructing a heated, four season greenhouse may be on the extreme end of gardening projects, but it is doable and will provide even more food for our family!
The last part of the homestead garden that I want to discuss in this article is all the perennial plants that are also available to us. Perennials can provide us with more than just food – compostable materials, domesticated and wildlife habitat and forage, fuel, fiber, shade on those hot sunny days, and nectar and pollen for honey bees are just some of the reasons to include as many perennials into our landscapes as possible.
Perennials that we can include in our landscapes can range from ground covers, herbs, chop and drop nutrient builders, flowering and fruiting shrubs and bushes, brambles, berries, wild flowers, fruit and nut trees, and all the way up to climax forest trees. All of these can be a benefit to our overall homesteads in some way. Whether they can keep us or our livestock and bees fed, turned into medicine, or provide us with fuel for heat in the winter – all perennials have a place in our home gardens and landscapes.
My favorite perennial to grow and live with are the apple trees. There is something magical about them – steeped in history, and surrounded by myth and legend. My love affair with apples started with the story that Michael Pollan told us in The Botany of Desire. The story of the apple in America is also the story of the man that spread its genetics – John Chapman, or better known as Johnny Appleseed.
Johnny Appleseed represents for me not just a historical figure, but also a way of life. He promoted food in some of its most weedy forms, and apples, and WILDNESS, and CIDER!! What is more needed today than the reminder that he can give us? A reminder of what it is to be human, what it means to play a role and lend a hand in the production of our food, and what it means to plant, grow, and participate in a community!
So there is the first installment of the Northern Urban Homestead series. I covered a lot of ground, but there is so much still to discuss. Over the next few months I hope to return to this idea and elaborate more on other aspects of the northern climate homestead. There is plenty to cover – more ideas about our outside spaces, the kitchen and cooking, more DIY projects and much more! Until then, stay warm! Peace & Cheers!