How to Get Started

Hello from the Quarantined HillTop!

How are you fairing in this crazy time of quarantine? Personally, life has not changed too much for us, other than my husband is home full-time currently. We’re still doing our normal things this time of year: prepping garden beds, clearing brush, growing from seeds and repairing areas that harsh winter winds damaged.

Has this time of uncertainty and quarantine made you start to question where your food comes from? Has it caused you anxiety? Does it make you want to take on a new project to become more self-reliant? As I have been living to grow and raise more of our food these past few years, the inevitable question has come up from friends, “How do I get started doing what you do?” Also posed as, “How can I start? Where should I start? What should I do?” This quarantine has me being even more peppered with questions.

There are so many aspects of homesteading, self reliance and sustainability you can start with, it can be overwhelming. You can garden, compost, raise meat (cows, pigs, lambs, or chickens), you could have chickens for eggs, preserve food through canning, dehydrating, and freezing, you could harvest honey or maple syrup…and these are just a few. I could easily go on with more.

Here are some of the smallest steps that I recommend starting with…some are easily accomplished during this time of social distancing.

Compost

I have a love/hate relationship with composting. I love the idea of it, the benefits of it and want to do it. I’m horrible at it, hence the hate. I’m horrible because, I’m on it regularly and then take large breaks, so all my efforts get derailed.

Composting is easy enough to start. You can have an outdoor area designated to it or you simply purchase a composter. There are even many DIY options for composters on Pinterest you can pick as well.

One of the reasons I’m not good at it, is because of the balance of green vs. brown matter. You need a specific ratio of them to encourage the breakdown of items (most often I see 1/3 green and 2/3 brown). Many times my ratio is off.

Green being: food scraps (veggies, fruit, coffee grounds, tea bags), grass clippings.
Brown being: cardboard, newspaper, straw, dry leaves

Do a little research on what you can use or not use, because there is definitely some items you don’t want to try to compost. I highly recommend this as a place to start because:

  • There are items that we all consume that can be composted. It’s a way to limit how much we waste.
  • The overall concept is easy. Even my kids get behind the idea and taking items to the composter. They love turning the composting bins to assist in its necessary rotating.
  • I love the idea of saving money with the things I already have. By composting, I’m saving money from having to buy compost later in the gardening year.

Something new I’m utilizing is an idea I’ve taken from a dear friend of mine. I’m keeping a container on my counter top. I fill it with green matter and then throw it into the composter in one shot. My goal is to form a steady habit of filling and emptying.

Container Gardening

Sometimes the idea of gardening is overwhelming. You see what some of your neighbors and family members are doing and think, I don’t know if I can keep one plant alive, let alone an entire garden. And while it doesn’t need to be, gardening can be expensive. Depending on how many seeds or seedlings you buy, equipment you need, your costs can go up quickly.

You can have a few items in containers for very little cost. If you are planning on a herb, vegetable or flower garden you are simply do this on a much smaller scale.

My little sister’s container herb garden. Her husband made a wonderful DIY herb table.

Containers for gardening can be a variety of items. Whether a bought planter/container or a converted item (make sure to have proper drainage), you can plan one item or fill it full with companion planting. Last year I grew a Cascabella Pepper plant in one planter surrounded by Swiss Chard.

Container gardening takes a lot more watering than traditional gardening. So if you are not good at remembering to water, make sure to set an alarm for yourself. But you can have your containers be dual purpose; one to be your garden and two to be your front porch beautification.

You can grow from seed or buy seedlings, either option is completely acceptable. This is a great step into gardening without overwhelming yourself with too large of a garden too fast.

Freezing Your Extras

If you are already working with a level of gardening, and you are to the point where you are producing more than you can eat before it spoils find a suitable way to preserve your extras.

There are a variety of ways to preserve your food: canning, dehydrating, freezing, fermentation, etc. Personally, I find freezing to be the easiest. You’ll need to do a small amount of reading to understand if you need to blanch the item or not (start the cooking process and stopping it suddenly with ice water), prior to freezing.

I recommend freezing first because you don’t need any new or high-end equipment. At most, you’ll probably need is freezer bags, and you may already have some.

Thawing shredded zucchini from our previous year’s garden.

Freezing your extras will allow you to enjoy your hard work from the warmer months in the middle of winter. It’ll help cut your grocery bill, how much will depend on what items you decide to save. Also, this simple step will help you to see how much you can rely on yourself and not solely on grocery stores for your food.

Edible Landscape

As weird as it sounds, having an edible landscape is a great asset to your family. There are a variety of shrubs, bushes and trees that produce a crop that your family can utilize.

There are one of two ways you can utilize the edible landscape. You can look around your property or neighborhood for items that grow wild. When I was in the city of Erie last year on a mission trip, I was surprised to find Mulberry trees growing within the city limits. My one friend has found wild elderberry growing in her neighborhood. Growing up on the farm, we always had black raspberries and blackberries producing wild.

If you know how to mushroom forage you can utilize your property to find Morels or Chicken of the Woods. I plead with you to not do this unless you have a mentor, have experience or take a class. This is something that can cause more than a stomach ache if you eat the wrong item.

Nut trees can also part of your property. Pennsylvania, as do many states, have an abundance of edible nuts that fall from the trees. Some common ones include: Chestnut, Hickory, Walnut and Buckeyes (cooked)

I understand that you may not have some of these in your neighborhood or property. However, the second way you can utilize an edible landscape is to add one. You can add a variety of berry bushes around your house. Fruit trees aren’t expensive and in many cases don’t grow too large. Caution: Some fruit trees and berry bushes require two to produce. Add a small orchard, or even two trees to your backyard. Nut trees can be added easily as well.

Use Your Quarantine Wisely

There are so many steps to self reliance. My best recommendation to anyone is start slow, but continue to learn. Each year, I’m reading books and publications, and I try to attend one conference a year. It helps to push me in new directions. Not all work for our family, but the steps that d o are huge.

Keep pushing yourself, and simply start. If you can find one new step this year, than you are already ahead of where you were. Use this time of social distancing to pick what you are going to try. I can’t wait to hear where you start.

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