In our 37 year off–grid homesteading adventure, we’ve had the tough chore of taking woodland and converting it to gardens. We’ve never had the luxury of driving into a new homestead that had cleared land with an established garden. We are establishing our third homestead and I’ll share what I’ve learned about creating a garden where one didn’t exist. Let’s hack our way to garden prosperity!
One Colossal Mistake!
Readers of my book know I made one colossal mistake when I first started my homesteading adventure. I was young and a complete novice with off–grid living, homesteading and gardening. I was in my early 20’s when I made the big transition from electronics tech to homesteader. I purchased a 120 acre woodlot in Maine that had an old overgrown potato field in the middle of it. A young forest was growing in this field with spruce, fir, poplar and alder.
What could be simpler than calling in a bulldozer to clear the driveway and then clear this field so I could build a home, barn and grow a garden. The bulldozer arrived and did exactly what I asked him to do, clear all the growth and pile it up in the middle of the field. I had one massive pile of trees, roots and sadly, topsoil. In my quest to clear the area, I, having zero experience with bulldozers and gardens, had inadvertently shaved off my best topsoil and put it in a pile in the center of the field. The soil was inaccessible since it was intertwined with masses of trees and roots.
It took me years to cut and salvage as much wood from the pile as I could for firewood and then get to the embedded topsoil to distribute it back over the land. Unfortunately, despite my best efforts, I was unable to recover much of the valuable topsoil. As a result, I had to embark on a substantial soil building program that took copious quantities of manure, sawdust, and cover crops. We ended up with wonderful gardens but we sure made it harder on ourselves than it needed to be. First lesson-don’t bulldoze the trees, shrubs and topsoil into a mess of a pile in the quest to clear a homestead plot.
In hindsight, there were some better alternatives I could have employed. There’s a dozer blade with long tines that can uproot trees and then roll them to remove some of the top soil. I have never seen this operation in person but trying it would have made a great deal of sense.
Another option would have been to hire an excavator with a “thumb” that could grab a tree or group of trees or brush, pull them up, give them a shake and pile them. I would still have lost a little soil but if I’d had the debris piled judiciously, it would have been much easier to cut out the firewood and then manually work the roots to dislodge any remaining soil. Oh well, call it a lesson learned.
I bought an old small farm tractor with antique attachments to deal with the annual soil turning. A 2 bottom plow, rusty disc and spring tooth harrow rounded out my gardening toys and made short work of soil preparation for the many years I gardened in Maine.
Off to Northern Saskatchewan
But the next stop was wilderness in northern Saskatchewan. As many of you know, we hired a float plane and literally selected a piece of virgin woodland from the air. Once we landed on the shoreline, we knew we had found the spot for our homestead in the bush.
But this endeavor was really going to require some effort. We wanted to create a homestead with a house and gardens out of nothing but forest. No way we were going to fly in heavy equipment even if it had been possible, which it wasn’t. Rather this was going to be done with muscle power along with hours and days of back breaking labor cutting down the trees, bucking them into firewood and putting the brush in large piles for chipping in the future.
Using a Come-Along
This process was OK for clearing the path from the lake to the house site and the house site itself but would never do for clearing the gardens. We wanted a vegetable garden, herb garden and an area to grow asparagus as well as various berries such as strawberries, raspberries and currants. By trial and error, I found a method of using a come-along and a couple of chains to literally hand winch the whole tree over and rip the roots out of the ground.
I would hook a chain around a convenient tree at its base and use that as an anchor point. Then as high as I could reach, I looped a chain around the tree I wanted to pull down. Using the come-along, I used the tree’s height as leverage to topple it. Spruce and pine trees which are relatively shallow rooted were the predominant species I had to remove and even though the soil was sandy, winching out every tree was quite an undertaking.
Once the trees were winched out, I used a good rototiller to make pass after pass in the garden areas to start to fluff up the ground. Initially, all my passes were stymied by a tangle of roots that wound themselves around the tiller tines. My procedure was to till a short stretch, shut the machine off (please shut off the engine before sticking hands anywhere near the tiller tines) and untangle all the roots. Once the tines were clear, I started the engine, went a little further and repeated the root removal.
With each pass, it became easier as more roots and small rocks were removed. Ultimately, we had fantastic garden areas. Though we were north of 56 degrees latitude, we could even grow a good crop of corn. There were certainly many tricks we learned to be able to grow a great garden in northern Saskatchewan and I’ll do posts over time on our techniques.
The Third Time’s the Charm??
Which brings me to our current garden situation in Nova Scotia. Here again, we are attempting to take forestland and turn it into gardens. Utilizing our accumulated knowledge from past experiences, the first thing we did was cut all trees and brush with a chainsaw at ground level to clear the land. I limbed the trees and Johanna dragged them to the edge of the field. Any trees too big for her I hauled away. She piled all brush as well. It’s really amazing the mountains of brush that are generated from clearing an acre or more. An acre is 208’ X 208” which is a significant piece of ground to clear by hand.
We hired an excavator to do some road work. Once the trees were cleared from the road, we also had him dig 30 orchard tree holes. Two scoops and he was off to the next hole. I believe the excavator cost $90/hour. He was done in an hour. It would have taken us days and days to dig those holes by hand. Sometimes it pays to think out of the box and utilize equipment while it’s around.
We also tried an experiment and had the excavator dig around in the future asparagus bed and garden patches. We hauled our rototiller from Saskatchewan with the idea of using it to work the garden soil. We figured if the excavator bucket could randomly root around in the gardens, it would break up the mat of vegetation and large boulders weighing hundreds of pounds could be found and deposited at the edge of the garden.
Some Tough Tilling!
That sort of, kinda worked. The bucket was large and ended up finding the dozens of large boulders, which was a huge help. Otherwise their removal would have taken me days of wrestling. The bucket was also able to pull out all the stumps. But it really didn’t break up the vegetative mat the way we were hoping. As a result, it is a brutal endeavor trying to rototill.
Let me try to describe this mat of vegetation. Figure a mat 4-9 inches thick. Forget trying to take a spade or shovel and digging. The only way I can get a shovel to break through is to jump up on to the shovel with both feet and come down on it with my full weight. That gets me started. Subsequent jumps will get me through the mat. If I try to use a pick axe with the grubbing blade, I can swing that blade for all I’m worth and many times, it simply bounces off. It’s tough stuff. If I can get a clump out of the ground, a look at the side profile shows matted layers of roots and growth.
The matted layer stops our tiller tines dead. Looking back at our northern Saskatchewan garden start, I had it easy compared to this “concrete” I am trying to till up. While the excavator didn’t break up the vegetation as much as we had hoped, it did break up the mat in some areas and that is where I am able to get a small start. I pick up any chunks of vegetation manually, shake them until most of the soil is out and then I discard the clump at the edge of the garden. I use the shovel as needed to break these loose clumps into manageable pieces.
Even with the vegetative mat and roots removed it is still a chore to rototill as deep as the tiller will go. A trick I use as I am tilling is to swing the rear of the tiller from side to side as I move forward. Certainly effort is required to do that and by the time I am done, I feel as though I have wrestled in a rodeo for an hour. But that swinging of the rear end of the tiller allows the tines to dig in. If I hit a hard patch, I make tight circular passes, swinging the rear of the tiller as I go until I ultimately till down to the depth I want. I have it made at that point! Prime, fluffy soil. One final pass straight up and down the garden and we are now ready for next year’s planting.
As with Saskatchewan, the tiller tines quickly plug up with roots and I need to stop and untangle the mess. I now have piles of clumps and roots that we will chip next year. Running that material through our chipper will be my revenge for the aggravation and effort required to break the clumps into manageable pieces. Then we will add the chipped material back to the soil as organic matter.
Over time, as I rototill the areas, they are becoming prime garden areas. Our asparagus bed is now finished and I will be expanding the vegetable garden next.
Because we have various manual tools as well as the good tiller, we are able to work this tough soil. The combination of all these different tools along with old fashioned determination and effort will get us beautiful garden soil over time. We have adapted to the situation by trying different things until we hit on what has worked for us. Your situation might be different, but where there’s a will, there’s a way. Nothing is easy, but we will slowly keep expanding our garden areas over time until they are the size we ultimately want them to be. Subsequent tilling along with the addition of soil amendments will assure we are ready for next year’s garden. We will have hacked our way to garden prosperity! Stay with us and we’ll see what happens next year.
Until next time, keep the dream alive! We wish you a great day!
Ron and Johanna
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By any chance was your Maine land near Houlton? I have a reason for asking.
Hi Robert. Yes to your question. Have we met?
We will be at the Presque Isle (Mark and Emily Turner) library doing a book reading/signing on Sept 9 which is a Saturday. Time is 11:00 to 1:00. Please stop in if you are free. I’d appreciate it if you would spread the word for us as well. I’d like to see a nice crowd. Thanks Robert.
We have not met, but I am thinking you may have purchased my land near Houlton. If you bought it in the mid-70s and paid around $15K, then it is probably a certainty.
I bought it through a local real estate agent and financed through a local bank, but needed money a couple years later and sold it through the same agent I bought it from.
I have regretted selling it ever since. I never lived in Maine, but bought it as a long-term project. I lived in NH then , but have lived in several states and now live in Minnesota. We are retiring to rural Florida in Oct..
Hi Robert. I sent a private reply back to you. Please let me know if you did not receive it. But, I was not the one that bought your property. I wish you the best in your retirement and I thank you for following along and commenting. Ron
Makes my gardening easy. But oh wonderful feeling of doing something you know how to do.Too many people would rather have someone do all the work. I’m proud to work and put food away.
It would have been nice if things got easier over time. But working this garden is really going to take time. This will be a slow and steady approach. But as you note, we have the knowledge and we’ll just work the edges now and expand it. Next year will be much bigger. One thing we are counting on is having ground that doesn’t freeze until December or January. And then ground that can be dug by late March. Of course this will be our first winter here so we’ll know soon enough if the weather cooperates.
I’m proud of anybody willing to do hard work and is capable of putting food away. That’s my kind of person. 🙂 Enjoy the rest of your harvest. Ron
Ron, An amazing amount of work to start a garden from woods. I’ve started several from pastures and it’s much easier. I still have to deal with quack grass and bind weed, that I can’t seem to get rid of. One year I raised 4 pigs for 7 months in my fenced in garden of 80 X 100 to help with ridding me of those invasive root systems. It really helped but not totally and then I had to till down far enough to break up the hard pan made by their “mud”. I know you’ll have a great garden space in a few years of your hard work.
Hi Lucy. Pasture is a good start for the garden. Busting the sod up is work but at least the tree stumps and gnarly roots are long gone. Fencing some pigs in is a great idea. They will certainly root the ground up. Only problem with that is if there is any weak spot in the fencing, the pigs will find it. 🙂 I’m confident we will have a great garden in a year or two. I’m already chomping at the bit to till it up again as soon as the garden is done this year.