Reflections from a Novice Homesteader: Biting Off More Than I Could Chew

A beginning homesteader learns that comfort and well-being should replace ambition.

Reader Contribution by Ashley Torres Kritz
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Photo by Ashley Torres Kritz
A row of homegrown orange pie and decorative pumpkins.

I recognize now, after 38 years of being me, that my nature can be a bit overwhelming. I can tend to put the cart before the horse, count my eggs before they’re hatched, and push the pedal to the metal until I inevitably crash and burn. Luckily out of those ashes, the phoenix continues to rise.

I don’t doubt that I will fall into these fiery trappings of expectation again, but after some serious reflection it seems that perhaps I could work to turn down the thermostat of my self-sufficiency desires to a more comfortable temperature. Why would I continue to make my attempt at homesteading harder on myself unnecessarily?

Narrow the Focus

Earlier this year I quit my day job, not because I didn’t need to work, but more along the lines of I couldn’t work– at least not in that way, in that career. I began to entertain the idea of sharing my passion for growing food with others by the means of getting my produce into their kitchens.

I immediately undertook the challenge of expanding the garden into the front yard. First, I flagged down the tree trimmers and they dumped load after load of beautiful, free mulch. Then, I set my sights on getting rid of the lawn. We built two chicken tractors that deposited fertilizer in rectangles at a time and then we covered those spots with cardboard and wood chips. Slowly the dead grass was transformed into a different sea of brown.

By summer I was getting antsy. Every gardener knows the feeling. I wanted to plant and I wanted to plant now. Logic told me not to, but I did it anyway. There was no fence. The soil really wasn’t ready. Did I really have the time, and especially the energy (or even the resources), to maintain two gardens?

The answer was clearly No. As I examine what went wrong in that new garden this year, it’s simply that it started so soon. It seemed logical that the answer was expansion. In hindsight, it was simply to maintain and reinforce what I already had.

The front yard garden got more attention and better sun, but it also got annihilated by deer just before harvest. Had I focused on the existing garden out back, the one that was fenced and had plenty of room for tighter planting, perhaps I would have been able to feed other families, instead of just the deer and my own.

Work Smarter Not Harder

This past summer was a season of learning. With a little space, it’s easy for me to see that now. My body and physical capabilities are not what they once were, and if I hope to maintain any ease of movement into my coming years, I’d better pace myself.

In my twenties I didn’t tire, and I didn’t get hurt. If I wanted something, I simply worked harder. In my thirties, I pretended I was still in my twenties and tried to work twice as hard as I once had just to prove it. As I consider my forties, I realize the cliché is true and I better learn to work smarter not harder.

Must I focus on two gardens each day? Must I walk from one end of the property to the other twice each hour? Must I really learn to take care of a new type of farm animal now? Must I always have my calendar full of upcoming projects? Or start my own seeds? Or try to grow five varieties of everything because I can’t resist a good seed catalog?

My body definitely doesn’t think so. So, while I do live on the beautiful Central Coast of California in the yearlong season of Zone 9b, I’m going to take nature’s cue and use this time during fall and winter to rest. Although there will be a garden, maybe one is enough for now. And if I do get a hankering to work hard on that new garden space, perhaps the fence should come before the forage.

Make Peace with Unfinished Business

Some days are harder than others. If I have learned anything from the garden, my muse, during these past few months, it is this: tomorrow is a new day, and if it doesn’t get done today, perhaps that is okay. Perhaps it’s not meant to be. Perhaps it will be next season. Perhaps it never will. There are flowers to admire and bees to adore. There are children to snuggle and family meals to be shared. Maybe the weeds can stand another day or the garlic can get planted next week? Maybe the peppers and pickles never get planted. Maybe I don’t tolerate those foods anyway.

When I sit back and kick my feet up to examine my homesteading successes, it turns out my perceived failures have been successes, too, even if all I got was a garden lesson.

Celebrate the Smallest Bounty

When I dream, I tend to dream big. I won’t just grow two kinds of winter squash, I’ll grow ten. I won’t just have a garden, the whole property will be one. I won’t just grow some onions, but I need to grow enough for the whole year. I won’t just keep chickens, but I need the whole menagerie, too.

White ducks at the backyard feeder.

When I don’t succeed in stocking the pantry with these expectations, when the harvest is not what I had hoped it would be, or when we just couldn’t finish that project this weekend but already have plans for the next, it is always that I had imagined the destination before the journey, the prize before the race, or that I had simply worked myself into a pile of ashes.

As I ponder my next decade, I realize that comfort and well-being are replacing ambition. Instead of beating myself up over things that never were and never meant to be, I vow to celebrate what is, rather than what is not. We didn’t acquire any goats or pigs this year, but we added ducks to the homestead. I didn’t grow enough onions to last the year, but I grew some and that’s enough. The deer ate most of the winter squash, but they didn’t eat it all.

I believe the Rolling Stones said it best: You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find, you get what you need.

Ashley Torres Kritz is a former high school teacher who now spends her time being with the land and her family on their small homestead. Read all of Ashley’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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