Raising Food for Winter: Challenges and How Much do We Need?

This post was originally on my short lived homesteading blog. I’ve updated it with current information after the last gardening season. Gardening is still a challenge but each year gets a little bit better.  This post does contain affiliate links. Thank you for supporting Real Food for Less Money with your purchases.

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When I was a little girl my parents had a large garden plot about a block from our home. They owned a city lot (or maybe it was two) that had a barn, a chicken coop and very large garden on it.  While I call it a city lot the town we lived in was only a couple of thousand people at the most.  We would walk over to the garden every evening after my dad got home from his job at the grocery store.  We’d feed the chickens, water and do the weeding.  I didn’t care much for the the chickens. I was often (maybe always) barefoot and the chickens would peck at my toes.  We moved from there when I was in the second grade.  While we did have gardens again we never had anything on that same scale.  And there were no more chickens.

When I was a young adult I started gardening again.  I put two garden boxes on the side of my house plus a few beds in the front for growing flowers and extra veggies. I’d work out there every evening and on the weekends. It all grew and well and I enjoyed being able to grow so much.  Off and on through the years I’d have a garden.  I never considered it more than a hobby and never actually considered that raising some of our food was a great thing to do.  And I never thought about how much I’d need to raise if we relied on that garden.  After all, why worry about that when I could toodle over to the grocery store and pick up anything we wanted.

Four years ago we moved from the Pacific Northwest to Wyoming.  We arrived in Wyoming on May 3 and early June I started a small garden. Again more of a hobby then anything.  At that time I didn’t realize what a difference gardening in Wyoming would be compared to what I had been used to in the incredibly fertile Pacific Northwest.  There it seemed all I needed to do was toss some seeds around, pull weeds and reap the harvest.  Wyoming was nothing like that. I think I harvested half a dozen radishes and two hand fulls of greens that year!

Over the next few months my world view began to change. I realized that relying on going in to the grocery store for all of our food put too much dependence on too many things.  First we live about 20 minutes from the nearest store and I hated wasting the time and gas needed to go in to town on a whim.  Second gas prices were going up, up, up and saving that gas was becoming important.  Third the economy was not in great shape we were officially in the Great Recession.  Being able to raise our own food not just as a hobby but for nourishment became important to me. garden

The last few years have continued to be a learning experience.  I’ve yet to have what I consider a successful Wyoming garden.

Our second year garden was going very well. Everything was green and growing. Then a hail storm came.  My garden received quite a bit of damage (and during the hail storm and flash flood that followed we lost 20 chickens).  A few days later the bruised plants started to perk up a little bit.  I thought maybe we’d be able to salvage at least part of the garden.  Then the grasshoppers came.  One day my garden was green and recovering. The next day I had nothing left but stems.  We had planted 41 trees also and the grasshoppers ate all but six or seven.  Those six or seven were quickly destroyed when the neighbor’s goats came down and finished them off.

Our 2011 garden did grow a bit more food. We didn’t have any hail storms or grasshoppers. I did find deer in the garden one day but the damage was minimal.  The neighbor’s goats were once again a problem. The took out our fence and helped themselves to the garden. We did get a nice amount of potatoes from the garden that year.  2012 saw goat problems again but we did get  a very nice amount of greens and potatoes.  The biggest problem with the 2012 garden was I ended up not being home much that year due to circumstances.

This year we tried a few new things. We’re using cold frames and some of the ideas from The Four Season Harvest by Eliot Colman and Barbara Damrosch. We’ve added several amendments to our sandy soil.  One of the challenges with gardening is the wind.  It blows quite often and dries things out. We put up a wind block along the fence (we had also hoped this would help keep the goats out) which did help.  We took out about half of our garden boxed and planted directly in the ground. Our tomatoes did rather well not in a box. We did plant one bush of cherry tomatoes in a box and it also did well. Our potatoes, turnips, carrots and beets did the best. We only got a few summer squash, one pumpkin and one acorn squash. We ate salad and cooking greens all season.

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We put our three cold frame boxes on the south side of the garage. So far we’re happy with them. We aren’t growing as much in them as we would have like but do have enough to harvest about every other week.  We’re looking at this fall/winter garden as a learning experience more than anything.

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I often think of the original homesteaders and pioneers when I’m planning and/or planting the garden. They truly did have to rely on their own harvest to get through the winter.  If you have read any of the Little House on the Prairie books the accounts in there of the family losing everything to grasshoppers or the winter the train couldn’t get through to restock supplies are scary.

As part of our goal of freedom from dependence we would like to be able to provide the bulk of our food for ourselves and our livestock. Thinking about the amounts of food we would need is staggering.

A book that I love and really lays out just how much food is needed is Letters of a Woman Homesteader by Elinore Pruitt Stewart.  The Kindle version of this book is quite often free on Amazon (my affiliate partner). I have the paperback version and have read it more than once.  This book is actual letters from a woman who homesteaded right here in Wyoming.  At the end of the book she writes a letter that lists the food they grew to get through the winter.

“I never did like to theorize, and so this year I set out to prove that a woman could ranch if she wanted to. We like to grow potatoes on new ground, that is, newly cleared land on which no crop has been grown. Few weeds grow on new land, so it makes less work. So I selected my potato patch, and the man ploughed it, although I could have done that if Clyde would have let me. I cut the potatoes, Jerrine helped, and we dropped them in the rows. The man covered them, and that ends the man’s part. By that time the garden ground was ready, so I planted the garden.  I had almost an acre in vegetables. I irrigated and I cultivated it myself. 

We had all the vegetables we could possibly use, and now Jerrine and I have put in our cellar full, and this is what we have: one large bin of potatoes (more than two tons), half a ton of carrots, a large bin of beets, one of turnips, one of onions, one of parsnips, and on the other side of the cellar we have more than one hundred heads of cabbage. I have experimented and found a kind of squash that can be raised here, and that the ripe ones keep well and make good pies; also that the young tender ones make splendid pickles, quite equal to cucumbers. I was glad to stumble on to that, because pickles are hard to manufacture when you have nothing to work with. Now I have plenty. They told me when I came that I could not even raise common beans, but I tried and succeeded. And also I raised lots of green tomatoes, and, as we like them preserved, I made them all up that way. Experimenting along another line, I found that I could make catchup, as delicious as that of tomatoes, of gooseberries. I made it exactly the same as I do the tomatoes and I am delighted. Gooseberries were very fine and very plentiful this year, so I put up a great many. I milked ten cows twice a day all summer; have sold enough butter to pay for a year’s supply of flour and gasoline.  We use a gasoline lamp. I have raised enough chickens to completely renew my flock, and all we wanted to eat, and have some fryers to go into the winter with. I have enough turkeys for all of our birthdays and holidays.”

Thinking of growing two tons of potatoes is almost overwhelming! This was the first year we successfully grew carrots since we moved to Wyoming,  and we didn’t get very many, a half ton of those sounds impossible.  Plus at our current home we do not have a root cellar so storage of that amount of food would be near impossible.

As we plan for our future homestead we do intend to add a root cellar as one of our our projects. In fact, the plan is to have that in before we even have a real house put in!  Focusing on vegetables that grow well in our location is something we are really working on.  Using ideas to extend the season is great but working with what we have might be the easiest course of action. And having the success would be a great moral booster.

 

 Do you garden? Have you ever considered how much food you would need to produce to carry you through the winter?

 

This post contains Amazon affiliate links. If you make a purchase that originated from one of these links I may receive a commission. Thank you!

Excerpt from Letters of a Woman Homesteader by Elinore Pruitt Stewart paperback version pages 279 to 281.

 

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