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25 May 2009

Living off the land

Lettuce, bok choi and cabbages.
One of my fantasies when I was younger was to wander off into the bush and live off the land. In the 1970s, many young people thought that was an attractive proposition and while some did it, my life lead in a different direction. I guess the phrase ‘living off the land’ has a romantic ring to it but I had no doubt how much energy it would take and how difficult it would be; even so, I probably underestimated it by a long shot.

A green crossroad.

Full of vitamins C and A the purple top turnip. You eat the root and the green top.

A lot of time has passed since then and many of the things I once thought of as great ideas now leave me underwhelmed and with a wry smile. But not that notion – living off the land, I still look back to a life when I would have, could have and maybe, should have. I’ve kept chooks and a vegetable garden for many years now, not in the wild and crazy way I once wanted to do it - living in the bush and foraging for food, but the more sensible and productive option of growing conventional fruit, nuts and vegetables, and that, combined with chooks, suits me just fine. Now, instead of it being a crazy way to live, my understanding of living off the land is more holistic, now it really fits into my life.

These delicious lettuce grow well here during the colder months.

I have no doubt that if we wanted to put more time and energy into our garden, if we dug up more lawn to double the size of it, we could live off our backyard produce all year long. But we are getting older and the time and energy we wish to give the garden is what we give it – and that results in us producing about half the vegetables we eat and about one tenth the fruit. Many fruits and nuts take a lot longer to produce than vegetables. Bananas, for instance, take about 18 months to produce a good sized bunch here, and then that part of the banana has to be cut down to allow others to produce. Unlike oranges, they don’t produce for many years on the same tree. Our pecan tree took 12 years before it gave us the first nuts. We have an excellent Eureka lemon tree that has been a prolific producer almost year round for the past ten years. When it comes to choosing fruit and nut types, make sure your choice is the right one for your area because you will either hit the jackpot or be wondering when and if that tree will ever bear the fruit and nuts you bought it for.

Sugarloaf cabbages. These are the only cabbages we can grow in our short winter season.

And when you grow cabbages, cauliflowers or broccoli, you'll have white cabbage moth caterpillars. When we have only a few of these, we sacrifice the one plant they're on - they usually go for the weakest one. When there are a lot of them, like we have this year, we spray with the organic bacterial spray - Dipel.

But I know now that living off the land in our own backyard is possible for us and it's also possible in varying degrees for many people. If you list what vegetables you usually buy and work out a plan to grow those vegetables right there in your back yard, not only will it give you inexpensive organic vegetables, it will teach you the many skills you need to be successful at it and give you the independence and freedom of being able to feed yourself. If you live in a warm climate, you’ll probably have at least six months of growing time, if you’re in a colder place, maybe four or five months That is ample time to get in a few decent crops and to freeze or preserve/can your excess – spreading that backyard cheer over a longer period.

The celery is tall and starting to fill out.

The other day I read that in the UK, USA and Australia, vegetable gardening has recently increased 30 percent in popularity. While I would love to think that all those people new to the vegie patch were doing it because they have changed the way they live, I think it is the result of the global economical crisis. But for what ever reason you’ve taken to growing food in your backyard, it is a good one because I think it will teach you a lot more than you think it will. All of our ancestors survived because they had the ability to produce or gather their own food. It is a powerful and significant skill. Our survival doesn't depend on it now but the feeling you get when you pull those early carrots, dig your first potatoes or freeze an abundance of beans will be very close to self respect.

I laughed when I saw this photo. The white girl is Germaine. It looks like she's creeping up on Mary.

When we decided to live a more simple life, I wanted to use every asset we had to produce what we needed to live - our land was one of our major assets. So when it came down to it, I did live off the land and it makes me proud to know I can because learning to grow food also teaches you a lot about the natural world we live in, and that is always a good thing.

Have you started a garden this year?


  1. You are very right about increased interest in gardening. It is all about the economy. My brother has a huge backyard garden. My neighbor has been an urban gardener for longer than we have lived here (11 years) and this season I put in two tomato plants. Well - it's a start.

    Thank you for the on-going inspiration you provide here for me and so many others.

  2. We're sure trying to. I'm inside right now having been run off by the hail. This makes 7 out of the last 8 weeks where we have had rain/hail/snow on the weekends. Lovely. I ran in from the garden to pull all my pots under shelter. Now I'm waiting for the tornado warning to pass and the rain to stop so I can get back to work. I don't think we've ever had this wet of a spring.

  3. Your garden is beautiful along with your chooks of course. I do have a garden going this year. Hubby built planter boxes and we are seeing growth. I also planted some of the loofa seeds you sent me a while back when we lived up north. I had kept them on my desk just waiting for the garden to be ready. This morning I went out and there are some there growing! YEAH!! I am very excited. Hugs, Bobbi Jo

  4. My family has been living off the land since I was 7, I am now 43. They have scaled back due to less people at home, so less need for 3 large gardens.
    When my children and I get into our own place again, even if I have no yard, I plan to grow inside.

  5. i have had gardens for years but now i look back on them and laugh. i had gardens that we planted with huge vegetables i bought from the local "big" store and plopped in holes and then wondered why for such healthy looking plants they didn't produce much. my tomatoes tasted like the store bought kind. and then this year came along. i built raised beds in my formal gardens and started everything from seed. i guess i can't get too excited yet because i haven't tasted anything other than radishes. but those radishes tasted like dirt. not in a bad way, mind you, but like the earth. like how it smells when it rains. my kids who never have liked radishes, gobbled them up for breakfast each morning. it is elemental. plus the joy of interacting with nature and knowing that those trimmings from your garden go back to the compost pile and back into the garden and then our's the complete natural circle of things. it feels right.

  6. Thank you for sharing how you are 'living off the land' Rhonda...I love the way you plan your gardens, they look beautiful and oh how I wish we could grow lemons and bananas!
    It finally is warming up and I will be planting my garden this coming week. I usually put in beans,peas,carrots,beets,tomato and pepper plants,herbs,lettuce, chard,corn and potatoes.
    Years ago I had a huge garden every summer and tried many different vegetables but I have scaled back a lot. Still do some canning but mostly freezing the veggies now.

  7. We have had a garden for the past 7 years or so. At 1st just growing a few tomatoes, but gradually increasing to lots of tomatoes, lettuces of every sort, radishes, potatoes (this is my 1st year trying these), beans, peas, zucchini, peppers, and cukes. It is not enough to live off of, but it is all I can manage for now. The only thing I will actually preserve from the garden will be the tomatoes, which I will freeze or can. The rest will likely be eaten in season. I wish I was much more I would do!

  8. Good morning Rhonda,

    I'm really looking forward to having chooks again and a lovely vege garden. We are patiently waiting for the right person to come along and buy our apartment and then we will make our way back to the country. We are learning about patience as we wait. My goodness! aren't we an " I want it now" society. So as we wait what a pleasure it is to enjoy your garden with you. Many thanks.

    Blessings Gail

  9. We have peas and strawberries right now but a lot more growing. Last year we had a lot of cabbage butterflies and they turned into a lifecycle lesson for my boys- but we got no broccoli. just a bunch of leaves full of caterpillars and chrysalises on our diningroom table. I did read you could sprinkle cornmeal on the plants in the morning (while wet with dew still) and that would help control them...haven't tried it yet...we are just squashing eggs as we see them.

  10. Greetings from Canada
    Growing up in a large family we always had a garden. It was expected of my husband and I when we too started to grow in numbers, and I then marveled at all the work my parents put into a garden as I simply found it hard to spend so much time weeding. Then there were the years when it was plain cheaper to purchase in season vegetables at the grocery store or farmers market. But little ones start to grow and time becomes more patient. We too have a large garden with many hands to help. A large cold cellar and big freezer.Gardening is an art of patience and surprises.Sure wish we could grow the warm temperature fruits and nuts you speak of.

  11. It was my dream, for a very long time to have a garden. I have one now, but have been stuck in perfectionism and not doing much... Your messages helped me have the courage to do a little work, if that's all I can do or know how to.
    I just planted 3 tomato plants, 2 zuchini, some herbs and peppers. I also have some soy beans.

  12. I've only recently found your blog, but do so enjoy it. I also recently found and have enjoyed reading the book, "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" by Barbara Kingsolver. I am a single mom of 2 kids and have for several years been wanting to try a square foot garden but have been afraid to put one in because it might be "too much" for me. (Not sure if I thought the garden police would arrest me or what!) Anyway, your blog and some of the others out there have been so inspirational and I appreciate your sharing. I live in the US and last week I put in one 4'x4' raised bed with radishes, carrots, peppers, swiss chard, one cilantro and beets. It won't be a big harvest, but it was a big step out of my comfort zone.

  13. Dearest Rhonda,
    We move into our new house next week. I am so excited. It's a restored federation home on 1.6 acres. Enough room for a HUGE vegie garden, chickens, the works. But I realise that I will start small as it will be too overwhelming to do everything at once. I got a membership to the diggers club for my birthday with 2 of their wonderful vegetable/fruit books so I have been doing lots of reading. As we are moving to a new area I have discovered a group of people called the Hunter Organic Growers Society which I will join as soon as we move to meet new people.
    The main reason I want to grow my own vegies is I am very frightened about the level of toxic sprays used on vegetables & fruits. I have started to buy organic but if I can grow my own that will save some money. I do wonder if in the future they will ban these chemicals that may have some link to the types of cancers today.
    Keep up the wonderful work Rhonda, as I so enjoy your posts.
    I'm off to do some packing!!!
    Take care & God bless

  14. Hi Rhonda
    Over the years, I've grown the occasional tomatoes, but because I had small children and a full time job, I didn't have time to do much else. Last year the tomato scares started here in the states, and I decided enough was enough and started a small garden. And I mean small! It wasn't very successful, but what I did get made me want more. My 2 children are grown now (although still at home) and I now work part-time from home, so I have been able to have the time to greatly expand the garden, complete with 2 rain barrels. The season has only just recently started here in Michigan, but I had a start by starting seeds indoors. I have an abundance of lettuces growing that we have been eating for a few weeks, radishes and spinach. Many more things are to come! I only wish my backyard was as neat and tidy as yours is!!!

  15. I'm growing celery for the first time this year. I am not sure if it will work, but I"m loving the effort!


  16. We are growing corn, tomatoes,okra, bell peppers, pole beans, squash, sweet potatoes, cukes, luffas, herbs, and flowers. I love taking a walk around the yard to see how everything is doing.

  17. My garden is small but growing each year. I have 4 raised beds with tomatoes, green beans, cucumbers and pumpkins as well as some winter onions. Are these what you call Welsh onions? Also thanks for the bed making tips, I've been trying it the last few days and find it easier than the old throw everything at the head of the bed and then struggle to straighten it out method!

  18. Very soon for us the garden ! We still have frost at night... How I envy you to be able to grow things all year round.

  19. I love to can and freeze. In my eyes, it is therapeutic. You sow it, take care of it, harvest, and then you enjoy that beautiful healthy food all year round. I feel guilty, though. Have lived in this home for 5 years. Still no garden. Plenty of goats, and now have the soap business, but no garden. Rather sad, isn't it? I did purchase 3 tomato plants this year.

  20. We're doing a square foot garden for the first time this year. My new land is very rocky so I have to go with a raised bed method. We had a spell of wet weather and ended up with early blight. Do you have to use fungicides on your garden?

  21. I love your picture of the celery, and the chooks. I think I'll start calling them that, even though I'm in Canada...I wonder if it'll catch on?
    I am trying to get a garden in. This is my second year, and with a newborn, I don't know how much we'll get. I have some planted, but have more than 3/4 left to plant. I have 48 tomato plants started, I'm really hoping I can keep up with it, I would love to feed my little guy fresh, homegrown, organic produce for his first foods this fall!
    Can you maybe write a post about when you first started gardening? I know it's a learning process, and you'll get better every year, but I find I'm having trouble being patient, and I feel like I'll never be the one people will ask for gardening advice!!
    -Melanie in Canada

  22. We haven't planted our garden yet. Still too cold here at night... but really looking forward to it. I love the picture of your chooks. It looks like the white one is sneaking up on the black one and is ready to attack! :) Have a great day!

  23. Yes we have a garden & plans to make another bigger garden. I get great pleasure from growing from seed, and the harvesting for the table.

    Growing is:
    Spinach, silverbeet for chooks, cauli, red cauli, red cabbage, green cabbage,broccoli, kale, lettuce which is ready but oh my it's cold here & none of us feel like eating lettuce! Carrots, red onions, brown onions, broad beans, peas, strawberries, rhubarb,beetroot,Yams were a flop - the pet lamb ate the tops & I think that has effected them - at least we are being fed by the lamb (home kill)and I don't feel one bit guilty after the damage she did to my garden!

    Should have eggs but chooks off the lay

    Fruit trees: Olives,lemons, blackcurrants,raspberries,
    blueberries,cape gooseberries,

    Herbs: (I do want to develop in this area so would love to read a few suggestions) Garlic chives,
    parsley,oregano,marjoram,cat nip,
    comfrey,feverfew,pineapple sage,
    Bay Leaf
    Love Leanne

  24. We have a small patch for vegies. Currently we are growing winter lettuces, rocket, peas, broccoli, brussels sprouts, sugarloaf cabbages and carrots. Fruit includes Tahitian lime (mini), Meyer Lemon, Kaffir Line and strawberries in a pot.

  25. Were going to plant potatoes tomorrow and pole beans.Tomatoes will be next week and peppers too.We usually share a garden with the inlaws but this year I wanted my own,I'm so excited!!

  26. This year I'm going veggies in planter boxes. I have a couple square and a few long ones. So far, so good. It's not possible to put in a full garden here, but its the goal for the future.

    Although, I'm unable to have enough for canning, I will again this year go purchase organic fruit and veggies directly from the growers to put up for the winter.

  27. What a beautiful, picture-perfect garden!

  28. Love your garden. Hubby and I finish putting in our veggie garden over the weekend.
    Ok we still need to put in our cucumbers, a few more squash, and the gourds.

    I want to purchase some lumber to put in some boxes. With the economy and lumber coming down in price it still costly.
    I figure I can afford two boxes and it better then zero.

    Coffee is on.

  29. This is the first year we are able to have a proper garden. When we lived in an apartment we container gardened.
    This year we are growing...
    29 tomato plants
    15 pepper plants(jalapeno,bell,banana)
    Brussels sprouts
    Swiss chard
    green beans
    I wish I had more space for more garden. I am a gardening addict!

  30. I've just spent some time planting in the garden with my kids this weekend. It's not done yet, but it's about half in.

    Every year the garden grows. This year we removed much of the sod from our front yard to grow more veggies and I'm putting some borders of lettuce and spinach in the flower beds as well. I'm starting to use every bit of space I have. It's been fun to start everything from seed (otherwise the gardening season is so short here in Canada)and it really does make you appreciate the process and effort that goes into everything we eat.

    This year I'm working with a friend to start a community garden as well. It won't get going until next spring, but gardening seems to bring people together - people who might have nothing else in common, or have very different cultural and social backgrounds. I can't wait! Even having my veggie garden in the front yard has gotten neighbours talking and visiting.

    I'm dreaming of chickens as well. They are not legal in my city, but I may do it anyway with the permission of my immediate neighbours. If no one complains, I figure they won't enforce that bylaw. We'll see.

    Thanks for your blog, by the way. It's like visiting with my mother somehow. And it brings back some memories of a few years I spent in Australia.

  31. Hi Rhonda!

    We have our summer garden in and growing well--tomatoes should be ripe soon (I hope!). This is the biggest garden I've put in since leaving home (12 years ago) and I'm so excited to be going back to producing a portion of our own food. My husband hunts most years, but this year he didn't get drawn for a tag so we are raising a beef steer on a friend's dairy. I wish the steer were being pastured, but at least we know the meat will be healthier (and cheaper) than what we could buy from the grocer.

    I just posted a garden update on my blog. Lots of yummy tomato photos as well as a few others.

    Even though we have yet to harvest our first tomatoes, I'm looking ahead to our fall/winter garden and what seeds need to be ordered/started now. I love how the cycle continues.


  32. Nice post. I enjoy seeing your photos and reading your thoughts about gardening and chickens. However, the calm nature of your life shows me that I am on the right track.

    Keep digging (ala 1960's definition of digging) the dirt!

  33. Hi Rhonda Jean,
    I made a pincushion , inspired bythe one I saw here a couple of weeks ago, there is a pic on my blog if you are interested to take a peek.

  34. I have a backyard garden that has had varying degrees of success. Strawberry patch is spreading, but we battle critters eating them before we do! I have planted tomato, corn, peas, spinach, zucchini, green beans, peppers, and cucumber this year. I am hopeful for enough for storing... You never know! ;)

  35. I thoroughly enjoy your blog! Your garden looks awesome... seems that more and more are starting a garden and a good thing too!

  36. We do have a garden growing! I need to be out there right this minute working in it.
    We have big boy black eyed peas, fordhook butterbeans, truckers favorite, silver queeen, merit corns,
    okra, peanuts, purple hull peas, white creame crowder peas, red cabbage, purple top turnips, georgia collards, carrots, radish, onions, garlic, spinach, tomatoes, peppers,
    brussell sprouts, roma beans, and I am sure I left something out.

    I pressure can, freeze and dry fruits and vegetables.
    We know what we are eating, where it came from, no pesticides or bought fertilizers on it.
    It is hard work, good therapy, good exercise, just all around good for the body and soul to work in a garden.
    Plus the bonus of saving on the grocery bill!

    Have a great day!

  37. Dear Rhonda,

    I can relate to one of the comments by Sandra Fonseca. I, too, am a perfectionist, and have never been able to sustain a garden because of it. I have this idea - you know how you hold swaps? I'm wondering if, through your blog, you could set up a mentoring system. Obviously, from the comments on today's post, many of your readers are successful gardeners. I, for one, would benefit from an online partnership with someone who could mentor me so that I could have some success with a garden. What do you think?

    best regards,

  38. Hi Rhonda,

    My partner and I rented an allotment garden this year and are giving it a go as first time, organic gardeners.

    I'm also taking a wild edibles course and learning about the food and medicinal value of many of the things growing around me, especially what other people would call weeds!

    Yesterday, as I was picking sweet violet flowers and leaves, a young girl came up to me and we spent about 15 minutes together. I told her all about violets and how to recognize them. She ate some flowers and leaves (her mom was really impressed by this because normally she never touches leafy greens!). I felt it was a special moment of sharing and passing on knowledge that I had learned.

    Getting my hands dirty in the earth, learning about plants, harvesting and preserving food and herbs, saving money by going to the grocery store less...all of these things are incredibly empowering and add meaning, purpose and value to my life.

    I can see changes in my partner as well. Normally reserved, shy and prone to insecurities, he takes pride in the raised beds he dug, the composter he built from scavenged materials... He is making plans for a better, more efficient watering system. He stops to meet and talk to our garden neighbours.

    It's good for us to have a project to work together on too. It's teaching us how to plan, make decisions and communicate well.

    Where once I used to long for the weekends to go out dancing all night with friends, now I turn down invitations to social events that might keep me up too late, because I'd rather be in the garden or out foraging in green spaces!

    I still live in an urban environment but I feel very much like I am slowly learning how to live off and with the land.

  39. I just have to let you know on a little trick about getting cabbage moths down in numbers.
    You know the slice bread you get at the shops,well the WHITE ties on the pack are the trick. Tie the White tie on a garden stake and place them around your cabbages/garden.
    then sit back and watch the cabbage moth fly away. It's all about territory.

  40. I am seeing more gardens in my neighborhood than ever before! I do have a veggie garden and this year I'm trying my hand at growing oats. We have some berry bushes which are doing great and fruit trees which are not doing well at all. No chickens yet although I'd love some -everything in time. Although, sometimes I feel like I have to do everything at once!


  41. I have started a garden...and we're off to a bit of a rough start here in Nor. California. Too much rain..not enough sun...then too MUCH sun...not to mention TONS of earwigs and nothing organic is stopping them. But...we're hanging in there. The lettuce has done really well...but one can't survive on that!

  42. I finally got hubs to build me a raised garden and took the plunge. Had a few mishaps but the big thing is he got orders to move us...right about the time the harvest is about to come in. So much for my garden. Hope the next owners enjoy it!!!

  43. Melissa, I hope your new home will be all you want it to be. It is a good idea to join an organic gardeners group. You'll be able to swap seeds and cuttings and benefit from the advice of the gardeners who have been in that area for a long time - each region has it's own wonders and trials, so ask for that advice and run with it. Take care, I can almost see that smile of yours from here.

  44. Rhonda,
    Yes, I did start my garden, but I just wanted to complement you on your photos in this post and the ones after. Beautiful work. I usually don't pay that much attention to photos but for some reason, these really caught my eye.

  45. Rhonda,

    The photo of the green cross roads is just lovely and how true it is...

    I haven't convinced my husband to take up all the lawn but I have been finding empty spaces in the flower beds to tuck herbs and veggies in. I planted some pumpkin seeds last week on the back side of our poop pile, they are going well so far.

    I have added a few container herbs and am tucking them in little corners in the yard. Seems there is always more space, some times it takes a bit of creativity.

    This is a great post.


  46. I loved this simple post - and what great piccies!

    I come from a long - I dare say unbroken - line of gardeners... and growing my own food just like my grandfather was my goal from my early teens (I think you can picture how out of step I was with my peers, as that was in the 'greed is good' 1980s!)

    and these days I DO grow a nice proportion of the family's fruit and vege...

    for me it's not just been about saving money (although I certainly do feel mighty satisfied by the reduced grocery bills!) and it's not only about knowing what your eating (although I do enjoy the knowledge that our food is 'icky free') and it's not only to help the environment (but working in the garden makes me feel warmer than standing in front of a coal fire powered electric heater...)

    for me, getting my fingers in the dirt connects me to all those folk who have gone before me: growing their family's food, preserving the excess, saving the seed... and its a good - no make that GREAT feeling.

    cheers from the creek

    ronnie (yes - I'm another Rhonda!)


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