Our 21st Century Virginia Homestead

In the 1980s, Ellen and Harvey Ussery made a new start on their Virginia homestead and now very nearly food self-sufficient.

| December 2006/January 2007

Ellen and I met at a Zen monastery in the Catskill Mountains of New York state more than two decades ago. The initial spark of interest flared into true love when we discovered a mutual passion for compost.

That statement is not as silly as it sounds. We both had left behind failed marriages, and were pessimistic about ever finding love, much less marriage, again. But what better metaphor for a new life together than compost? What we both needed was renewal, to transform what was past into something new and vital. We began to dream of finding a place where we could compost, garden and make a new life.

We married, and soon found our own bit of Eden: two and a half acres of pretty good dirt in a crossroads rural village in northern Virginia, within sight of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The farmhouse was nearly 200 years old, and it began as a two-room log cabin, before previous owners began adding on. We decided to call this homestead “Boxwood,” after the large rectangle of mature boxwood trees that grace the front of the property and provide privacy from the road.

We moved to our Virginia homestead with the goal of becoming more self-sufficient, and every year we saw an increase in the amount of food we raised ourselves or purchased from local growers. I’m now 62 and retired from the Postal Service. Since retiring, I have more time for gardening (we garden about 7,000 square feet, and manage one acre of pasture) but my current efforts at homestead food production are simply an extension of a way of life Ellen and I chose when we first moved to our homestead.

Building Better Soil

Our goal has always been to eat fresh, 12 months of the year. We don’t do much home  processing, which is labor intensive. We do a little freezing, but almost no canning. Instead, we grow many crops that naturally store well, such as winter squash, potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots and cabbages.

When we started our garden, the first challenge was coaxing plants to grow in our native clay soil. Over the years, it has been a revelation to learn that, given the right soil amendments, clay is actually among the most fertile of all soil types.

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