Read all posts in the "ABCs of Homesteading" series here.
Homesteading is not just a set of unrelated activities. It is a sustainable system comprised of interrelated activities. Like homesteading, this ABCs of homesteading blog series is not just a set of alphabetized posts relating to homesteading, but rather a recommended order of activities to help new homesteaders get effective results.
We started with ABC – asceticism, borrowing, and creativity – as our kick-off to make time for homesteading and establish a mind set for success. Then we went for the kill - literally - with D is for Ducks. Raising ducks makes sense from a skill building and food supply perspective, but they are also an important addition to your homestead for our next installment – E is for Edible Landscaping.
Starting an Edible Landscape
When we think of planning an edible landscape, the first thing that comes to mind is choosing food for us: Apples, Berries, Cherries – as in the ABCs of delicious fruits. But that's like trying to grow a steak without thinking about the cow, the grass it eats, or the seeds and soil that grow the grass.
If your goal is to develop a sustainable homestead food supply with minimal need for external purchases, then you need to start further down the food chain by making your landscape edible for soil inhabitants, beneficial insects, and homestead livestock.
The Industrial Soil Complex
Soil is like a complex food factory and recycling center at once. It not only produces food for us, but also for incalculable bacteria, fungi, insects, plants, and animals. Unlike most other industrial factories, healthy soil recycles any “waste” created through the food production process back into useful nutrients.
The problem is, there's not much soil around anymore. Quite a bit of it has been exhausted by non-regenerative growing practices, washed or blown away, or has been heavily contaminated with pollutants like pesticides and herbicides which destroy the dynamic properties that differentiate dirt from soil.
Additionally, most food growing practices revolve around “bad trades” — e.g. we take away fresh, nutritious food away and give back packaged fertilizers. The soil always loses in this scenario, but ultimately so do we, as our food quality degrades and our cost of inputs goes up.
The good news is that we can rebuild our industrial soil complex and make a truly edible landscape using a few easy methods. Basically, we need to start by making “amends” for past wrongs in soil management. That means our soils need to be wined, dined, and made to feel special again. And that's where the ducks come in.
Using Ducks to Rebuild your Soil
Soil building can be a daunting task because it takes work, time, and sometimes costly resources. Instead of trying to fix it all at once, start with a small area – 1000 square feet or less. Put up a temporary fence to trap your ducks in this area.
Pekin ducks are too heavy to fly, so they don't need much to keep them in — 2-foot chicken wire zip-tied to garden posts will usually do it. If you have predator issues, you'll need to upgrade to taller welded wire or electric netting.
As for shelter, have you ever noticed an elaborate duck house at your local park with a duck pond? Probably not. That's because unless you live in extreme climates, ducks don't need much shelter. They just need shade for afternoon naps, good food, and lots of water to be healthy.
If you have a stand of leafed out trees then shade is covered. If not, you can easily make shady areas by throwing a tarp over some straw bales and weighting it down with whatever you've got available or hanging it like a tent on garden stakes.
As for ponds, my permanent ducks have permanent ponds which will be covered under P is for Ponds, later in the series, but for temporary pasture set-ups, an $8 kiddie pool, refilled daily will do the job.
For food, if you've got weeds, grass, or other unwanted plants in the area — just leave them. Ducks will either eat them or plod them into near oblivion with their webbed feet. Now, chances are your brand new duck “pasture” isn't already filled with the highest quality duck food.
So, for your first round of ducks, plan to feed them about the same feed rations you would normally give them if they weren't pasture-raised. If you notice they aren't eating everything you give them and are still putting on weight, then feel free to scale back your portions as appropriate.
Since you are trying to build soil productivity, a.k.a. soil fertility, so that you can create an edible landscape, your goal is to get your ducks to poop — a lot — and to do it all over your fenced area. To make this happen, move their food bowl and kiddie pond around your plot every couple days. This helps direct them in doing your dirty work and prevents a build-up of too much nitrogen in one area.
Also, when you dump the kiddie pond to refill with fresh water, try to pour it over the areas that have the most evidence of duck droppings. This will help disperse those piles, allow the good stuff to infiltrate and fertilize the soil, and minimizes that lovely eau de canard non-duck aficionados cite as a downside of raising ducks. All that extra water spread around your duck pasture is also great worm encouragement.
If these are meat ducks, and it's good weather, you can probably put your ducklings out at 2 weeks of age and let them work the land until their final moment. If these are keepers, then just move them to a new plot about every 6-8 weeks. Make sure to provide covered nesting areas for easy egg collection for your layers. Then get ready to plant cover crops.
Using Cover Crops to Build Soil
At this point, you want to dig up and flip over any persistent weeds, e.g. stuff even the ducks wouldn't eat or couldn't kill. Those kind of weeds tend to have roots that make good worm shelter, so instead of throwing them out, just flip them over. The root ball smothers the leaves and the roots dry out and die without contact with the soil. This slow weed death also gives the worms time to move to new digs in the vicinity.
Next step is to broadcast (fancy term for randomly throwing) your cover crop seeds. I like to use a mix of mustard, daikon radish – also called tillage radish, clover, and buckwheat. I buy these seeds in bulk from the farm supply store, rather than seed catalogs, because it's much cheaper.
Also, as a new homesteader, you can never have too many cover crop seeds! I also like this particular mix because in a SHTF scenario, daikon, buckwheat, and mustard are all human edibles, too. The clover is a nitrogen-fixer, so like the ducks, it's actually working to make the soil better as it grows, plus it's great food for pollinators like bees.
Cover, but don't smother, the seeds with loose straw. Water daily until the seeds establish. Once they start growing, for best results, make sure they get about an inch of water a week from rain or your garden hose.
Creating a Pollinator Plot
Now, if you plan to leave this area as a pollinator plot – a thing which every good homestead should have several of – go ahead and add herb and wildflower seeds to your cover crop mix before you scatter your seeds. I recommend borage, sunflowers, yarrow, vetch, echinacea, anise hyssop, and whatever other self-seeding or perennial flowers and herbs you prefer. Then just leave this area “bee”. (Sorry I couldn't resist).
You can dead head the flowers to encourage new blooms, cut them for bouquets, or collect the seed heads to use in other pollinator plots. You can also pick some of the edibles to enjoy. But you want to let most of the leaves, a.k.a. biomass, to die back cover the ground in the winter to act as a protective mulch and add back nutrients for the next growing season.
In future years, you may need to divide perennial plants if the plot gets to crowded, but for the most part, this will be self-sustaining going forward.
Creating an Annual Vegetable Plot
Now, if you prefer to go straight to human edibles and turn this plot an annual vegetable garden, wait for the buckwheat to flower, but don't let seed heads form. Then mow down all your cover crops at once. Chop them off as close to ground level as possible. Leave all the roots and radish in the ground as food for soil inhabitants. (OK – steal a few radish and mustard greens first if you must, but leave most of it.)
Cover the entire area with cardboard and soak with water to keep it from lifting off the ground in a good wind. Then cover the cardboard with several inches of seedless grass clippings, straw, mulch, manure, hay, spent beer grains, wine grape skins, mulched leaves — basically whatever safe, biodegradable, organic material you can get your hands on.
Avoid using lots of pine needles or other acidic mulch materials for this process because they may make your soil too acidic for vegetables. (If this is all you've got, consider planting a blueberry plot instead.)
When we first started establishing vegetable beds using this method, we bought a lot of manure, straw, and double-shred hardwood mulch because we didn't have a time to gather materials. If you have the financial resources to do this, it's totally worth the upfront costs for the long-term benefits to the soil. But make sure you know where the stuff comes from and that you are ok with the source, because this will end up reclaimed by your soil factory and repurposed into your food.
You can also free-source this material from your yard, your neighbors, and your community. Just get a lot of it because this is like the roof on your soil – it holds sufficient moisture in, keeps excessive moisture out, helps with temperature control, and as an added bonus — feeds all your soil workers like worms, fungi, and bacteria. In short, the better the quality going in and the greater the quantity, the more astonishing the results will be.
After this, you are ready to plant. Just use your hand shovel to punch through the cardboard, loosen up any roots still in the soil, and plant your seeds or starts. Water and watch them grow.
Every year, you want to add a new layer of whatever biodegradable, organic material you can get your hands on to cover your soil through winter. Or, to avoid moving material from one place to another, just repeat the cover crop steps above. Only this time, allow the cover crops to overwinter (gardener speak for leaving them in the ground to die or go dormant in cold temperatures) and only mow them down right before planting in spring. If they happen to seed while protecting your soil, collect the seeds and save them to use on your next edible plot.
Creating a Food Forest
And now back to the ABC's of delicious fruits – Apples, Berries, and Cherries.
If you plan to make a food forest with your former duck pasture, you can follow the same instructions as for growing an annual vegetable plot, just change what you plant. Pick disease-resistant fruit and nut trees or bushes that grow well in your area. Keep in mind root structures, tree growth habit, and mature plant size when selecting your plants.
Choose a few complimentary companions to grow near your trees and/or berry bushes. Plan for nitrogen fixers such as ground covers like clover and hairy vetch, a black locust tree, or a Siberian pea shrub. Include some “biomass creators” which are plants with deep roots that reach down into the earth to pull up minerals and also have big leaves that die to the ground in winter and release those minerals back into the topsoil by composting in place. Comfrey is a favorite for this purpose, but common weeds like curly dock and cultivated beauties like hosta will also work.
Pick some beneficial insect attractors like mint, yarrow, or your favorite flowering herbs to help with pollination and beneficial insect attraction. You may also want to consider edible diversions as a form of pest control. For example, plant a sacrificial mulberry to keep birds away from your cherry trees. For this purpose, you want to pick bird preferred substitutes that produce fruit at the same time as your human favorites. You can also use these sacrificial plants to feed your ducks and other homestead livestock.
Think vertically when planning your food forest to make the best use of your space. For example, if you live in the U.S., plan your mature plant heights to look like a set of stairs with your bottom stair facing south and your tallest stair positioned north in your plot. Using this configuration, your shorter sun-loving plants and bushes will not be fully shaded out by your taller trees. You can also use your taller, sturdier plants as trellises for vining plants like kiwi, grapes, passion flower, or beans.
Finally, consider adding edible mushrooms to your food forest by using the shade you've created to protect plug-spawn-filled shiitake logs or direct spreading king straphoria spawn (winecaps) in your mulch layer.
And Many Happy Returns
There is some work required to bring our industrial soil complex back online. But by doing so before planting, we can avoid many of the pitfalls that plague new gardeners and begin to reap the benefits of having very appreciative and perpetually giving soil support systems on our homesteads in record time.
Use ducks, or other livestock you decide to keep, to build soil in place as often as you can to expand your industrial soil complex. Also, if an existing plot needs a nitrogen boost or has too overgrown, bring back the ducks for a few days. They can make a meal of your surplus and recharge the fertility factor in your now highly productive soils.
Read on for the next installment: F is for "Fodder" and other forms of Feed.
Tasha Greer spent several years “practicing” homesteading in a suburban home in Maryland before moving to a nearly 10-acre rural paradise in North Carolina where she currently raises pigs, goats, poultry, bees, worms, vegetables, herbs, trees, shrubs, and mushrooms. She is a master gardener volunteer with a focus on helping people grow their own food. Find Tasha at The Way Back and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.