Time for another foolhardy and overly ambitious list of goals for the new year. Publicly posting my list both spurs me to get more done each year, and also hangs over my head like lead-clad obligation. Part of the process of assembling a list of goals is not just prioritizing among all the things I'd like to achieve, but also trying to figure out which out of all of those are most likely to see the light of day. I haven't proven too accurate with this. I end up doing things I didn't think I'd get to, while neglecting others that I thought would rank higher in priority. If only I'd been clever enough to put the task I was going to do on the official roster, I'd have one more item to scratch proudly off the list.
Since this is also the time honored season for reflection, I do have some self-analysis to burden you with. Early this year, facing another overloaded spring schedule, I experienced a sort of homesteader's burnout. Although I thought I'd been taking projects a few at a time, it all just seemed too much. Since beginning the homesteading venture in 2007, I've kept hoping, with each new year, that we'd get past most of the heavy lifting jobs, and reach a point where only the day-in, day-out routine and the changing work of each season needed to be done. I dangled the excuse that all the extra projects that needed doing were once-and-done things. But that rationalization wears thin when every new year brings an equal number of major projects. I face each spring a year older, and lately I feel each and every year of my age. So what I've resolved from now on is to do away with the psychological carrot - the idea that if I can just get this or that big project done, it'll be nothing but coasting from then on. Clearly that's not going to be achieved in the coming year, so I may as well stop kidding myself. Today all I can honestly tell myself is that at this moment, I feel up to another year of very hard work. It may be the last year of what sometimes feels like Herculean effort. Or, more likely, not. All I can do is take it from here and see how it goes.
Already the roster of projects to tackle this coming spring is a little daunting. This spring needs to include the pruning of fruit trees, putting in more asparagus crowns (more below), planting one more apple tree, starting about 20' of hedgerow with new plantings, and all that goes into starting up the annual garden. Seed starting alone is a pretty big task that stretches out over weeks. Everything else will have to fit into the docket during the rest of the year.
One thing I'm not committing myself to for next year is a new species for the homestead. After all, this year I violated my own one species per year rule. We'll try again with honey bees, and hope to do better by them in 2011. I have, however, been toying with the idea of keeping quail for some time. While I emphatically do not want to put myself on the hook for figuring out how to house and productively keep a new species, neither am I ruling out the possibility by resolving not to try a new species next year. Novel idea: leave myself some breathing room. If late spring rolls around and I feel like I've got all my major projects under control, I can revisit this issue.
So, without further ado, here's what I'm going to be working on over the next twelve months:
Plant a second apple tree - We cut down our hemlock tree in the backyard this year, and even lasagna mulched a spot nearby in hopes of making the digging go a bit easier. The intention is to replace the hemlock with an heirloom apple tree and at some point to graft some scion wood from our old apple tree onto it. Currently our venerable apple tree is a consistent producer of fine apples for eating and cider. But it won't last forever and the variety is unknown. So all we can do is, in effect, clone it by adding some of it to a new tree. We'll put in an Ashmead's kernel apple tree near where the hemlock stood. This variety is practically a legend of unparalleled flavor, and is known for its excellent keeping qualities. It will need a few years of growth before it either bears any fruit or is ready to take a graft from another tree. In the meantime, we'll need to find someone who knows grafting.
Start a hedgerow where part of our fence blew down - I plan to start with a few hazels and perhaps a medlar. These plants will need some time in the ground before we plant anything else with them. The hazels put all their early efforts into root development, showing top growth only after a few years. We'll give them those few years as a head start and then add faster growing plants. In the meantime, I can work on improving the soil quality along that fenceline, and on propagating seedlings of hedgerow candidates from the plants we already have on the property. It's going to be a slow moving project.
Convert half of one long garden row to asparagus plantings - It became apparent to me this year that we don't have nearly enough asparagus plants. Since the layout I chose for the garden this year is permanent, we can simply make one of the beds a perennial area. Yes, this is a fairly major spring project, since asparagus likes to be planted deeply. But spring is when asparagus needs to be planted. If an additional 25 crowns still doesn't meet our asparagus needs, we can think about adding another 25 plants in a couple of years. We do love our asparagus, and those lovely spears pop up when precious little else is available from the garden.
Continue to load up on soil amendments from our township - Each weekend in April and May our township will dump a frontloader scoop of mulch or compost into the bed of one's pickup truck for $10. We got at least one load every weekend the service was available this year, and I'd like to do it again in 2011. The addition of that much organic matter has made a big difference for our garden. One more year of this treatment ought to pimp our garden out beautifully.
Try starting new figs and other plants from cuttings - I've never started anything from a cutting before, but the figs must be pruned, and we'll need a lot of plants to populate the hedgerow I envision. So I'm going to try using the willow rooting hormone solution in spring. It might even work.
Improve over 2010's harvest tally - Okay, so 750+ pounds of harvest from the backyard seems pretty good, given the crop failure of the heavyweight winter squashes, and a kinda sucky year for potatoes. But we should be on a steady ascent path as the perennials come into production. Barring any weather disasters or plagues of locusts, our maturing pears, cherries, blueberries, figs, elderberries, grapes and asparagus should all produce better than they did in 2010.
Build a better apple grinder from a used in-sink garbage disposal. This is something I read about a few years ago, though I can't say where. So far it's never been a high enough priority to make it onto a formal list of goals. But this fall I got an object demonstration of the difference in yields between a commercial press and the old-fashioned grinding and pressing we do. It's profound. Given that apple pressing is a lot of work for a fairly small yield, it only makes sense to do a one-time project that will lead to less work and higher yields in the future.
Get serious about using the rocket stove and solar oven - Basically my goal of more sustainable cooking was a a bust this year. I managed to prepare just a few meals with these two alternate means of cooking. The late completion of our passive solar array severely delayed my ambitions to build a cooking station for the solar oven, since the plan was to use the framework for the array as part of the station. I didn't want to get in the way of the contractor while he was still working out there. I have less of an excuse for the rocket stove, but it didn't get done. I need to make it more convenient to use these alternative means of cooking in 2011 - and then use them.
Hoop house - Here's next year's burnout bait. This is the biggest, most labor-intensive project that I'm committing to this year. It doesn't have to be done in the spring, but it ought to be in place by late summer for season extension. The idea is to situate it where the shunt for our passive solar thermal system dissipates excess heat into the ground during the warm months of the year. Should be both a challenge and deeply satisfying to tackle such a project. Then I hope to house our hens in it during the winter months, allowing them plenty of light and relieving us of the work of rebuilding their winter quarters each year.
Rig drip irrigation from the rain barrel(s) for the main garden bed and the three sisters bed. We were able to salvage some drip hose a while back. It would have been great to have this irrigation in place this year when it was so dry. Of course, Murphy's law states that if we get organized with our rain water-fed, drip irrigation system, we'll have another sodden year like 2009. Still, it ought to be done.
Continue gleaning for the hens - We did pretty well with provisioning our hens via acorn gleaning in this mast year. Next year I'd like to match our 75 lb. haul on acorns, though I'm willing to make up that weight with hickories or perhaps even black walnuts if that many acorns just can't be found next year.
Build at least one more cold frame and get them all planted on time - I seeded the cold frames a bit too late this year, and the plants definitely look undersized at the moment. I know they'll resume their growth in just a few short weeks to give us early produce. But it would have been nice to have them available sooner. I think I need to aim for August sowing; it's just so counter-intuitive to plant in the hottest stretch of summer. I may need to strategize some way to cool the cold frame beds when it's that hot. My sense is that we'll be building one new cold frame each year until the oldest one wears out, at which point we'll switch to rebuilding the rotted ones.
Learn more about medicinal herbs - I've added quite a few culinary and medicinal herbs to our property over the last couple years. So far I've made a few salves and used lemon balm as a calming tea. I know what to do with the culinary herbs, but not much about using them medicinally. The easy excuse this year was that the plants were not sufficiently well established to harvest much from them. That won't fly next year, and the reality is that I simply haven't found the time to apply myself to any rigorous study of a rather vast discipline. I suppose it's better to have put the plants in and waited to figure out what to do with them, rather than studying up and only later getting around to planting things. By the end of 2011, I want to know more about how to use valerian, feverfew, self heal, yarrow, comfrey, chamomile, lungwort, skullcap, sweet woodruff, lavender, stinging nettles, elder, and the culinary stuff too: garlic, sage, mint, anise hyssop, thyme, oregano, rosemary and lovage. If you have any recommendations for books, videos, or online resources for learning about medicinal herbs, I'd welcome them.
Work on feeding the flock from our own resources - In lieu of committing to another species for the homestead, I'd like to retrench on the livestock we've already got. I want to devote some serious thinking, planning, tinkering, and experimentation to feeding our chickens from resources internal to our homestead. There are several specific areas I want to explore, including black soldier fly larvae "cultivated" in a homemade Biopod knockoff. So building one of those is an official goal. Beyond that, I think it's time to expand our vermicompost bins into something larger and more productive. At this point we should be getting some chicken feed from the worm bins, and I'd like to step up the scale by at least an order of magnitude. There's a good chance a larger vermicompost bed can be incorporated into the design of the hoop house, so we'll see how that goes.
Finally, a couple of non-specific goals:
Continue to host volunteer muscle - The WWOOF program has been a godsend for us in the latter half of 2010. It both pushed me and allowed me to get more things done around the homestead, without completely burning myself out. Aside from that obvious benefit, it has given me an outlet for my pedagogical tendencies while also taking the pressure off my husband to be my second set of hands for innumerable tasks. He does, after all, have a day job. There's not much I can do directly to recruit more volunteers, other than being registered as a host. But I'll do my best to work with the schedule of anyone who asks to come. Having willing and able help has been a tremendous resource.
Improve chest freezer management - This is a token housekeeping item for my list. It's not all that easy to quantify, but there's simply too much food hanging around too long in the chest freezer. This year when it was time to press our apple cider, we still had a few liters of last year's cider in there. Right now the freezer is completely full and we have a rather stupendous amount of frozen meat that we postponed eating for months because we had so much produce coming in from the garden that needed to be eaten up. Somehow I've got to manage our frozen stores better. I suppose a good first step is to stop buying anything that I'd need to store by freezing.
Continue to pay down the mortgage as aggressively as possible - This one is pretty self-explanatory. Our mortgage is the only debt we carry month to month. And it's a liability I would dearly, dearly love to be out from under. Given that 2011 may very well be the last year my husband holds on to his job, we need to keep a tight control over our spending, and make the best headway we can against the principle.
I think that about wraps up my ambitions for the new year. Once again, the list of tasks is no shorter, despite all that we've accomplished thus far. I could rattle off a dozen other projects I'd love to see done in 2011, including building a sauna, an outdoor bread oven, and starting miniature dairy goats. But those, I trust, will be projects for another year. What I've listed above, plus all the things that come along even though they aren't on this list, will more than suffice to test my mettle.
What's on your list of goals for 2011?