Saturday, March 14, 2009

Small Is Feasible

I've been separated from my laptop for a week, and barely survived the deprivation. I'm glad to be back.

As the spring rush draws near, I've been thinking about smallness and how it makes many things possible.

I've been trying to become self-sufficient since 1974, when we bought a house with a huge vegetable garden. It was laid out in single rows, and went on forever. It sat right at ground level, with no barrier to defend it from the lawn, which kept creeping in amongst the vegetables, no doubt attracted by the 75 wheelbarrows of compost I used to dump on the garden every spring. It was overwhelming, looked unkempt, and I dreaded working on it.

Between that first garden and my present one, I read Mel Bartholomew's Square Foot Gardening. Now, instead of working a sprawling vegetable plot, I confine myself to an area about 25 by 28 feet, divided into squares by walkways made of planks so I never step on the soil. This garden is protected from the surrounding crabgrass by sturdy 6” by 6”s, which allow me to pile the compost high on the beds, and give the whole a neat, controlled appearance.

If you have read the book, it won't surprise you that, with relatively little effort, I can provide my husband and me with vegetables year-round. This little garden also allows me to make weekly contributions to the local food bank, and to supplement the diets of my children, grandchildren, dogs, goats, and chickens. By far the most onerous garden-related task is preserving the harvest.

Where critters are concerned, small is sensible—small in numbers, that is, not size. My chickens are not small, but the flock is: seven hens and Charlemagne. A small flock means no fights and no cannibalism (crowded chickens kill each other, just like people); fewer trips to buy laying mash; fewer shovelfuls of manure to cart away in the spring. And if you have just a few chickens you get to know them personally, and they you.

Where goats are concerned, my ideal herd numbers two—one for milk and one for company. I have never allowed the heart-stopping cuteness of baby goats to get to me, but find them good homes as soon as possible. As with chickens, a tiny herd means less mess; less hay and grain to buy; fewer shots to administer, hooves to trim, births to oversee and babies to deal with. And the goat-shepherd relationship becomes intense and rewarding.

Now that I have discovered Nigerian Dwarf goats, small is even more beautiful. It took cute little Blossom and Alsiki 28 days to eat a bale of hay. I trimmed their tiny hooves the other day and it was almost as easy as trimming my own nails. They've been here for over a month, and their bedding still looks immaculate. This breed weighs about a third of an average goat, eats a third as much (therefore poops a third as much), yet produces half as much milk. No wonder it was chosen for the Biosphere Project.

I'm even applying the principle of smallness to my new orchard. It consists of two apple trees, semi-dwarfs of course, which I plan to keep short enough that I can minister to them without a ladder.

All this, is, nevertheless, a ton of work. A ton of fun, too, and a ton of food. But the only way I can keep it up is if I remember to keep things small, very small.

(If you want to read about a Pasadena family that is almost 100% food-and-energy self-sufficient on 1/5 of an acre, go to www.pathtofreedom.com.)

2 comments :

  1. I could have sworn I'd commented here before. It must have been in a dream.

    I just read about the Dervaes family in the last Mother Earth News and I am impressed and inspired. I've been following them around online ever since on Facebook, their blog, and their garden forums. I think I have a bit of hero worship going on.

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  2. Those people are impressive! However, it takes four adults (no little children to care for) all their time and a ton of hard work to keep the operation going. I have to remember that whenever I start thinking about getting a hand-operated blender.

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