By Pat Allen
We moved into our forever home Thanksgiving 2000; ten acres, a dream of having two horses, and more land than our two dogs could ever cover. Fine, but what do we do with the rest of the space?
After exhausting ourselves with endless options, we invited our county agricultural agent out to access our property and perhaps suggest what we might grow. After showing the agent around and describing our intention, the agent asked a few key questions: no, we didn’t have a tractor or any implements, no we’ve never had horses before but we’re eager to learn — that is, after we built a barn, along with electricity and water, then we’ll need fences.
In the meantime, we wanted to know what we could grow to make money from the land.
After several deep breaths, the agent recommended that we grow ornamentals; they could be grown in pots, didn’t require large equipment and expanding our business would be a matter of buying more large pots — not plowing.
After she left, my husband and I looked at each other, then asked “What are ornamentals?”
What business did two boneheaded city dwellers have moving to the country without researching more about living in the country.
Each Venture was a Learning Curve
We floundered for a few years but learned from each endeavor. But with each venture we asked the familiar ever morphing question: What could we grow to improve our lives out here?
Fortunately, the county extension office offered a 40-hour Master Gardener class in 2004 that helped me start to see an answer to that ever looming question. Unfortunately, the MG program fizzled out when the agent left; but, having this new found knowledge, we landscaped our property, got chickens, built two barns, added fences, got goats, and built more fences.
Fast forward to 2017, the county extension office revived the Master Gardener program and taught the course — again. Yep, I was in the front row — again. I volunteered until 2022 when our gardens grew to require more time and attention.
Besides, that ever looming question had morphed once again and became: what can we grow to save money?
Since we had added goats, chickens, and horses, we’d need to grow food for all of them. That means we’d need vegetables for the humans, forage for our goats and horses, as well as herbs for the chickens.
The What, the How, the When
The question was not only beginning to find its answers of ‘what’, it now included ‘how’ and ‘when’.
In addition to building raised vegetable beds, seeding our pastures with warm and cool season grasses for the horses and goats, we are also replacing all the non-native plants that surround our house with native plants that produce the right nutrition for the wild birds who have lived here or passed through for a millennia. While many non-native plants produce berries or nuts most do not offer enough nutrition that wild birds need to get them through winter.
I’m Learning About Plants that are Bullies
Last fall I removed as many non-native plants as I could only to have several privets return. I’m beginning to learn just how aggressive non-natives can be. Not being a fan of chemical defoliants I used a chainsaw to cut plants to the ground then covered them with cardboard and a thick plastic cover made for solarizing soil. Several months later, I uncovered the covers and removed the debris. Success!
However, the plants that I only cut back (not to the ground), grew back. Sigh . . . . Now I get to double my effort and cut them back again. But this time – to the ground. And I’ll keep cutting off their solar panels, called leaves, as soon as they grow; without a source of energy, they’ll eventually die.
Getting rid of non-natives is harder than I imagined. Sooooo, we hired an arborist to come cut non-natives from around our pasture fences and from around the house. Their army did in one day what would have taken us years to accomplish. They not only cut non-natives to the ground, they used a stump grinder to get rid of them completely and they left me with a mountain of mulch.
Now that the non-natives are gone we will be planting natives that produce food for local and migrating wildlife – next year. But for now, we’re cleaning the garden beds and preparing the soil for spring planting.
This coming summer we’ll be assessing our soil and preparing our gardens for native plants. We’re looking for plants that produce berries, seeds, and pollen that offer wildlife the nutrition they need to sustain them through the upcoming seasons.
Maybe this year we’ll answer that looming question: Which native plants can we grow that produce healthy food for everyone?
To be continued . . . .
Pat Allen lives about 40 miles due east of Charlotte. A founder of Farm Craft Studio, a former Stanly County Master Gardener, and a member of the NC Native Plant Society, Pat and her husband have made a range of farm craft products including compost, hand-drawn floral gift cards, honey and beeswax products, and goat milk soap. She also writes a blog about living on the farm. https://farmcraftstudio.com/welcome-to-farm-craft-studio/