For those who have followed my articles over the years, you might be aware of two things: A recent relocation and the fact that, in fact, I do not yet have a homestead of my own. My wife Emma and I spent quite nearly over two years in search of a piece of land in Central America, and in the end, we watched a couple of deals fall apart and, similarly, our hopes for living tropically dissipate. We now find ourselves in North Carolina, near Asheville, which is an exciting center of sustainable, small-scale food production and localized lifestyle choices. Due to this climate change, we have been reacquainting ourselves with how life may work when we do—fingers crossed—finally procure a small plot upon which to grow.
By and large, we’ve taken the new design approaches in stride. We have appreciated the idea of growing berries, apples, and American pawpaws instead of bananas, pineapples, and papayas. We have daydreamed about a snugly cob cabin as opposed to a breezy thatched hut, a kitchen meant to warm the house rather than one that needs to be outside. We’ve become foragers, enjoying mushrooms and wild edibles, something we were never able to do in Central America (though, undoubtedly, it does exist). Mostly though, we have been learning to let go off the ever-productive temperatures of the wet-dry tropics for the four-season temperate climate.
Having learned and practiced permaculture in the tropics, this changing of seasons has been a drastic shift for us. It’s easy to find new productive perennial plants, interesting to work through different housing challenges, and even exciting to think of a time when things go dormant (There is no rest to be had in tropical gardens!), but that part of the year when things don’t grow provides an adaptive mindset. Suddenly, we are thinking about frosts, root cellars, warmth, bursting water pipes, and energy-free greenhouses. In autumn, the homestead becomes all about making it through the winter, so we are making a to-do list for what needs to be done.
Compost Piles, Leaf Molds & Resting Beds
The leaves are coming down, and the green grasses are waning. It seems that autumn is a time for piling things up to rot. Compost piles have a chance to decompose at a time when we don’t really need compost for plants, and deciduous leaves are in such abundance that one can hardly keep up with clearing them from paths and driveways. It’s also the time when many (not all—but we’ll get to that) garden beds put out their last bit of production before taking the winter off. All of these are ideal moments for building soils and enhancing fertility, as well as crucial times for protecting soil life and capturing heat. Though winter isn’t as productive crop-wise, it is not a time when nothing happens.
1. Making up compost piles: While compost piles seem an obvious choice on the to-do list, we are trying to consider them as more than compost. Namely, they are heat. We hope to use compost piles to add heat to our greenhouse and to passively provide hot water, which could possibly be thermo-siphoned through garden beds for an added heating element. If strategically placed in garden beds, winter greens might also grow very well around the compost piles.
2. Molding leaf piles: Leaf molds are good for creating good soil structure and retaining moisture in gardens. It’s great mulch, absolutely free and in abundant wherever deciduous trees are. We envision these piles along pathways for efficient clean-up and, later, efficient application. Using a line of leaf mold bins could also provide a multifunctional fence/windbreak with the possibility of acting as a trellis during growing seasons.
3. Bedding down: One of the miracles of the temperate climate is that beds get to truly rest for a spell, and for those beds that are going to do so, it’s good form to tuck them. Autumn is the time to plant a cover crop mix (green manures) on rotating annual beds, something to protect the soil, to replace fertility, and to provide mulch in the spring. The other idea would be to provide a thick, mulch blanket for winter, emptying out compost bins, dropping crop waste, and piling up extra leaves. This is earth care.
Canning, Cold Frames, and Food Storage
In the temperate climate, eating in the winter is drastically different than eating during the other seasons. There is a massive shift in what is possible and a notable drop in overall production. Certain foods, both if we wish to have them in the winter (relying on local food sources) and if we wish to use them all, need to be processed. Other foods can simply be stored throughout the wintertime. Even other foods can be set up for continuous harvesting long after temperatures drop below freezing. Getting this in order in the autumn is a key part of the yearly cycle.
4. Preserving food: Whether it is canning, freezing, fermenting, or dehydrating, many of our annual fruits and vegetables required some sort of basic processing (and this not the same as “processed” foods) in order to survive the winter. Berries are great frozen, tomatoes seem to do well canned, apples and pears ferment into magical libations, and most things can be dehydrated, either to act as a flavoring agent or to be enjoyed as dried items, such as tomatoes, raisins, prunes, figs, apricots, cranberries…
5. Storing food: For other foods, processing isn’t quite as extensive. They can be stored in their whole food states, but they do require a little winterizing. Sweet potatoes, potatoes, onions, garlic, and winter squash all need to cure. Other vegetables—carrots, beets, rutabagas, turnips, etc.—store best in sand. Some apples will store until the spring. These autumn harvests need to be put away carefully.
6. Prepping cold frames: Despite the packing-it-all-in mentally of winter, in actuality, there are still fresh vegetables to be had, especially greens. Cold frames are an amazing way for keeping temperatures warm enough to grow greens into winter and, in many cases, harvest from them into spring. Autumn is the time to get the cold frames out, and with them, fresh food in the winter becomes an option.
Pipes, Power, and Protection
In the tropics, pipes freezing was never an issue, and heating never a grave concern. Though highland areas might sometimes call for a short stack of blankets or a fire, by and large, temperatures weren’t going to kill us, and pipes were infinitely more likely to burst due to a hastily stabbed garden tool than ice. In this situation, power was not meaningless (We still had to cook, and it’s always nice to see), but an outage was never so imminently life-threatening. At the temperate homestead, we’ll have to be much better prepared for such things.
7. Winterizing water pipes: Water pipes are a huge concern for the winter, and they have to be protected. A burst pipe can cause massive damage, not to mentioned lack of access to water. Ideally, our pipes will be buried below the reach of frosts, but we will have to think of faucets and tanks, which we hope to use as thermal mass heaters. In the winter, water is a major concern, both in terms or drinking, showering, and freezing.
8. Securing back-up power: Emma and I have imagined our house being passively heated via south-facing windows, an attached greenhouse, and plenty of thermal mass. It will be actively heated with a wood-burning stove, a thermal mass rocket heater, and possibly thermo-siphoned “radiators”. Blankets will be plentiful, and we’ll probably still have an emergency propane heater if the wood runs short. We hope to be off-grid, likely solar-powered for electricity, so we’ll need some back-up sources of light as well.
9. Protecting property: It’s important in the autumn, before things start to freeze, to protect stuff. Outdoor water hoses should be drained and stored, patio furniture can be put away, and pot plants brought in doors. The house and other “heated” shelters need to be checked for leaks and repaired. Snow shovels and whatever tools of the trade are needed should be inspected, mended, and made accessible.
Seeds, Stables, and Stacks
Autumn, in most ways, marks the end of outdoor frolicking for man and animal, though there are those of us who have still be known to grab a sled on a snowy day. It’s a time when annual plants have gone through their life cycles and have set seed for the survival of the species. A time when, like humans, many domesticated animals need warm homes prepared for the winter. And, for those of us looking to renewable energy and off-grid lifestyle, there will likely need to be a lot of firewood. Luckily, these are things that have always been part (or not part) of our plan.
10. Harvesting seeds: Obviously, on a sustainable farm, producing one’s own seeds for annual crops is a given. For many plants, autumn is the time that this happens. Tomatoes reach an end, as do things from the squash/melon family and other flowering plants. In addition to harvesting the last of the fruits, it will be important to collect and store seeds for next year’s bounty.
11. Stocking stables: Emma and I are both vegans and don’t plan on having much in the way of domesticated animals. I’ve been considering free-running ducks, both for pest control and the pleasure of watching them, and composting worms. Ducks are good with cold weather as long as they have adequate shelter, and for composting worms, the bin needs to remain covered and can be insulated with straw or hay on the outside.
12. Stacking firewood: Firewood will likely become a huge part of our lives, as we plan to use it for cooking and heating, hopefully with the cooking firewood providing the heat in the winter. Nevertheless, we hope to use coppicing and pollarding (black locust, we think) to provide a sustainable, self-reliant source, and there always seems to be people offering free firewood (Craigslist) to anyone who’ll pick it up. Hopefully, that’ll provide for us while our systems are establishing.
Undoubtedly, there will be much more to learn and add to our list of autumn activities, but we are both excited and hopefully increasingly prepared (at least in theory) for that first autumn on the homestead. I hope this has helped others feel the same. We’d love for those who have faced the winters and lived to tell the tale to further the list with useful and important considerations for autumns in the temperate climate. Then, with any luck by next October, I can write an article about what we are actually doing to prepare for winter on our homestead.
Feature Header: Corn (Courtesy of Ted)