Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Having just started my journey towards a more self-sufficient life, I’ve been “blessed” with countless “learning opportunities”. One thing I have learned repeatedly – if not quickly – is this: Always have a backup plan.
The learning curve isn’t a single smooth line. It’s a rough, upward ride of a thousand little bumps. A backup plan for whatever project you’re engaged in will help smooth over those little bumps. It lets you keep your forward momentum on the bigger climb towards self-sufficiency.
Take my garden for example. Boy, did I have some clever schemes for dealing with the clay-like soil and producing a tomato-pepper-eggplant extravaganza this year. Raised beds made from pallets. Mixing my own soil from excavated dirt, leaf mulch and organic fertilizer. Growing my own tomato, pepper and eggplant starters from seeds in a low-tech fashion.
But this plan hasn’t produced any fruit. Literally.
Of the seeds I started, none of the pepper or eggplants, and only half of the tomatoes made it. The tomatoes that I did transplant to the garden are now stagnant. This could be for any number of reasons. The soil mix, while an improvement, is of questionable quality. I’m not sure there are enough nutrients for these plants or if I can get them enough. Part of me wonders if the soil mix drains too quickly, washing away any added nutrients and not holding water in a way the plants can access. Then there’s the perennial question of how much sunlight the garden actually gets: is it enough? And the weather this summer has been generally wonky in our region. Regardless, developing the garden soil and space to the point where I can reliably grow a wide variety of vegetables is going to be a long-term project. It’s not going to happen this year.
(In fairness to the garden and my own developing skills, the pole beans and zucchini I direct-seeded in the same conditions appear to be doing well. How they actually produce will help me figure out exactly what’s going on down there.)
It’s a good thing I have my container garden this year, which has gone from fun side-experiment to main production focus. The tomato starters that I transplanted to pots (instead of the garden) have taken off. The chards, lettuce, radishes and sorrel are plentiful as always. The Provider bush beans are looking good and the Rattlesnake pole beans are coming up strong. My cucumber transplants are doing well, both the basic slicing and the more hipster-ish Lemon variety. I'm feeling so good about the container garden that I'm going to start zucchini and carrots in buckets. There’s still a good chance I could produce a bountiful harvest this year.
It’s also a good thing I’ve been so frugal in my other projects: I have some extra money to expand the container garden as needed. However, saying this immediately brings to mind a letter from a reader in the June/July issue of Mother Earth News. She suggests that having money is the key to making it as a homesteader:
"Homesteading is a full-time job… Unless you are independently wealthy going into that lifestyle, or you're expecting a big inheritance, I don't see how you can dedicate yourself full time, and I'm sure that's what's required."
It might seem like my backup plan has proven her right. And let’s admit it: money always helps. But if you think the extra money I’ve spent could equal or replace the time, energy and effort I’ve invested repotting my 3-foot tall tomato plants, starting dozens of new seeds, watering all the new containers and working extra shifts at a local greenhouse in exchange for the potting soil I need, you’d be sadly mistaken.
Being successful at modern homesteading doesn’t require deep pockets of money.
Being successful at homesteading requires commitment. A huge, bottomless reservoir of commitment.
And that’s what having a backup plan is all about.
It means even if Plan A doesn’t work, you’re still going to achieve your goal with Plan B. Or maybe even Plan C?
In terms of my own Plan B, let’s be clear: this is my first real container garden. Essentially, I’m backing up an experiment with another experiment. And I’ve already run into some challenges: root-bound tomato plants that needed emergency repotting from 4 gallon containers to 10 gallon containers.
So my Plan C is to look to the bounty of others for the food I want to put up this Winter: squeezing seeds for a local seed company and keeping the vegetables, hitting local farm stands, and trading with friends. It won’t hurt to have too much food put away if I do get a bountiful harvest. But it would be terrible to come up short. Of course, this is the point on the learning curve where disappointment can set in hard: getting my food from local farmers and friends moves me in the direction of dependence and not self-sufficiency. So what the heck am I doing all of this gardening for?
But this is also the point where that bottomless reservoir of commitment is critical.
Would it be a disappointment if neither of my gardens produced and I needed to rely exclusively on the good work of others? Yes, for sure.
Would it be an even bigger disappointment – and greater tragedy – if garden failures as a novice caused me to give up on gardening or homesteading all together? Absolutely.
After all, the real goal is putting into practice the whole range of skills that keeps me moving closer to self-sufficiency: planning how much food I will need, canning and preserving a wide range of foods, improving my own soil, collecting my own seeds, replanning the garden to be more successful next year, and so on. This year’s garden is just one small step in the greater journey.
Having a backup plan – or two – can make all the difference in the success of your journey.