Gardening without electricity was something everyone did in the past. And as the off grid living movement continues to grow, there's been a resurgence in interest in off grid gardening.
We bought our off grid homestead in Canada's subarctic 10 years ago. Since then, we've been learning how to grow our food and raise animals without relying on electricity.
Not gonna lie. This type of off grid homesteading is not for the fainthearted.
Here are some lessons I've learned about planning and gardening off the grid.
Estimated reading time: 14 minutes
Lessons Learned From My Off Grid Garden
Gardening off the grid presents its own set of unique challenges and rewards for modern homesteaders used to depending on electricity.
However, as I've learned the hard way, careful planning, experimentation, and understanding of natural systems do make it possible to garden successfully in an off-grid environment.
Here are the key lessons I learned while maintaining an off-grid garden over the last decade. From pest control to energy conservation, I hope these tips help you make the most of your off-grid gardening efforts.
Note: this post is for readers ready to create a large vegetable garden to feed your family in an off grid setting.
Your Off Grid Vegetable Garden Site
When choosing a site for your off grid garden, keep in mind factors such as sunlight, soil quality, natural vegetation and water availability.
For example, choose a site exposed to direct sunlight during most of the day. This helps provide warmth and energy for vegetables and herbs to grow.
What's the soil like? Assess the soil’s quality and fertility immediately. As in before planting.
Depending on where you live and the weather patterns your area experiences, consider water access. Do you have adequate water access from natural sources nearby? Could you try rainwater harvesting? Or will you need to haul your water in? How far?
In our case, we bought an off grid home on one acre with an existing raised garden bed facing southeast. We're surrounded by a lot of wilderness with the lake on the north side.
Our property includes mostly bedrock, with clay and sand soil.
Watering Your Off Grid Garden
Before you go much further in planning your off grid garden, make sure there is a reliable water source available throughout the entire growing season. Can you install rain barrels or dig a well? Or do you need to haul water?
Deciding between hauling water by hand or using a hose and water pump for your off grid garden can be tricky.
If you have access to electricity, then investing in a water pump may be the most practical option. Doing so can save time and energy compared to carrying multiple buckets of water from a remote source.
On the other hand, if you don’t have access to electricity, then manually hauling buckets of water may be your only option. You'll get exercise with minimal environmental impact.
At our house, we pump water up from our lake all year long. And the outside hose comes directly from our 1500-gallon water tank.
One of my good friends who lives off the grid also runs a market garden. She has been experimenting with pumping water from her lake to a custom irrigation system. Seems to be running well.
Learn Permaculture Principles
Permaculture is a gardening method using only sustainable, replaceable resources and making the most of the conditions of the land you're on.
When gardening off the grid, this means that you design your space for a low-maintenance vegetable garden. One that takes care of itself as much as possible.
Add fruit, herbs, and vegetables that grow wild in your area.
For example, we noticed wild raspberries, cranberries, and blueberries on our property. So we cut back the brush to allow them to grow better.
Create DIY garden projects to encourage local growth. Like a trellis for vines or fruit trees.
This will provide shade and protection from the wind. You can also install systems to catch rainwater and direct it where you want it to go.
Also, pay attention to the microclimates on your property. For example, our property is built upon bedrock overlooking a large lake. In the summer, we get 20+ hours of sunlight.
Look for Natural Microclimates
We have several microclimate areas with three "walls" made of bedrock. These pockets of rock make very warm climates naturally. We're experimenting with adding container gardens to these areas. So we can grow hot-weather herbs and fruit.
Another important activity of gardening off the grid is planting flowers to attract insects that are good for your plants.
Finally, spread mulch around your vegetable garden. Choose (or create) mulch made of wood chips or straw.
Using these permaculture design strategies in your off grid garden helps create a more diverse ecosystem. One where plants get access to all the nutrients they need.
Using a few permaculture tricks also helps to reduce water usage and labor.
Create or Purchase Garden Soil
Deciding whether or not to bring in new soil for your off grid garden depends on the condition of the existing soil.
Our property includes sandy, rocky, or clay-like soil. Plus bedrock. If yours does too, then you may need to bring in new topsoil to improve its fertility and drainage.
Also think about what industry is in the region. If there's a possibility of contaminated soil with heavy metals from prior use? For example, in our area arsenic from the gold mines is a consideration.
If contaminants are an issue, bringing in fresh, organic matter can help reduce toxicity levels. And provide a much better environment for growing a healthy garden to feed your family.
So basically, assess the quality of your soil before planting. This will help you decide if it needs amending with brought-in materials or if it can be used as is.
Remember, you want to make sure your off grid garden gets all the nutrients and minerals it needs to thrive.
How to Dig Out Your Garden
Should you dig by hand or use a generator to power gardening tools when planting a garden off the grid? Well, like so many off grid living decisions, depends on your individual situation and needs.
Manual labor will likely be the most economical option for your off-grid endeavors. (I'm leaving the whole 'time-is-money' debate out of this one.)
True, digging and weeding with traditional tools like spades and hoes takes more time-consuming. Yet it results in less impact on your environment. And in many off grid gardening cases, it's your only option.
On the other hand, you might have access to solar, hydroelectric, wind or biodiesel-generated electricity. Or maybe you have a diesel or gasoline generator.
It may make sense for you to invest in powered equipment like rototillers and electric water pumps that can make large-scale gardening projects much easier.
We use a gasoline rototiller once a year. And when we're doing heavy gardening or homesteading projects, Dan brings out our backup gasoline generator. But we use it sparingly!
Essential Tools for Gardening Off Grid
To create a successful off-grid garden, you need the right tools and materials.
These may include
Of course, you don't need all these gardening tools. However, they do make gardening tasks easier. And they may help you get better yields from your plants.
Choose the Right Plants
When picking seedlings, seeds, or transplants for your garden, think about how much water and light they need. And what type of soil
Some plants might need more water than you can get from rain or other sources like a stream or pond. Also, since you only use natural light sources like the sun, choose plants that do well with that amount of light.
By planting companion flowers and vegetables in your off grid garden, you'll pull double duty. Adding companion flours makes a garden pretty. And it could improve the health of your soil and repel pests at the same time.
Additionally, some plant companions improve the flavor of vegetables when planted side-by-side.
Use Natural Pest Control
Instead of depending on chemical pesticides to keep pests away from your crops when gardening, take advantage of natural pest control methods.
I've been referring to this Farmer's Almanac post for ideas like interplanting vegetables with flowers. Some flowers naturally repel bugs.
And my daughters will make homemade sprays out of garlic and onions when we're homeschooling in the garden.
Create DIY Homemade Fertilizer
Creating natural, homemade fertilizer is an easy way to give your garden the essential nutrients it needs. Without the cost and negative environmental impact of "storebought" fertilizer.
Composting in Your Off Grid Garden
Making your own compost for your off grid garden is a great way to improve the health of your soil. It also reduce wastes, and creates an organic growing environment.
Composting involves collecting food scraps, yard clippings, and other organic matter in a designated area or container. Then this material breaks down into nutrient-rich material to use as a natural fertilizer.
The resulting compost can also make an ideal soil amendment.
It not only improves drainage but also helps retain moisture longer than non-amended soils.
When you make compost at home, you control what materials go into the mix. And this further ensures that only safe ingredients are added to the soil.
Note: creating your own compost can be as simple or complex as you choose.
We generate a TON of compost. Our family generates a lot of food scraps. And we also use our chicken and turkey manure and straw in our compost.
We have an enormous compost pit that's about five years old.
Know When to Harvest
This one was tricky for me when we first moved here.
The growing season is very different when you live north of 60. It's short but mighty due to all that sunlight in the summer!
As you become more familiar with the plants in your own garden, you'll learn when they are ready for harvesting. And that's important.
Knowing when to pick fruits and vegetables is essential for ensuring maximum nutritional value and flavor.
For example, you can harvest tomatoes before they fully ripen. And then put them on a sunny windowsill to to run red. (Or make green tomato relish.)
And pick that zucchini early so it won't become overgrown and bitter tasting.
Make Use of Cold Frames
If you want to extend the growing season in an off grid garden, try a cold frame.
Typically made of wood with a glass top that acts as an insulator, cold frames trap heat inside. At the same time, they offer enough air flow to prevent overheating.
Use cold frames to start plants early in the spring before outdoor temperatures are warm enough for seedlings. Or use them for protection from extreme weather conditions late into the fall and winter.
That way you'll continue enjoying freshly grown vegetables long after the traditional harvest time has passed.
You can also use cold frames to grow certain veggies right through the colder months.
We use cold frames in spring and fall. However, with some winter temperatures approaching -50C, I doubt they could work through our arctic winter!
Container gardening helps us grow plants in the Canadian subarctic. I use container gardens in our microclimate areas on the property. Also, on our south-facing upper deck, as well as indoors in our sunniest rooms. Check out my post on how we grow beans indoors to learn more.
By cultivating my year-round off grid garden in containers, I create a micro-environment that is insulated from the colder temperatures outside.
Container gardening gives me more control over soil quality and temperature. I pack each container with different soil compositions and custom nutrient mixes for the particular vegetable or herb. It's easy to move containers around easily if needed or group like-minded plants together.
Now, this is all very much experimental as I am a novice gardener at best. Just learning as I go.
Northern Gardening is Different
Gardening in the Canadian subarctic is pretty different from gardening in Ontario, northern Alberta, and Manitoba. (Other places we've lived over the years.)
This is due in part to the extremely cold winters and limited sunshine during winter months.
Instead of relying on traditional growing techniques, gardeners must find creative ways to get their crops to thrive in the challenging environment.
For example, we choose plants that can withstand long periods of darkness or intense sunlight for almost 24 hours a day in summer.
Additionally, mulching heavily can help some plants survive during frigid temperatures. In other cases, such as our tomatoes and herbs, we bring them indoors for the winter by transplanting them into containers.
Off Grid Garden Resources
When planning an off grid vegetable garden, it's essential to know where to find the resources you need.
Research which vegetables grow best in your location, taking into account soil composition, water availability, and climate conditions. When armed with all this knowledge, you’ll be ready to get started creating a successful off grid garden. And if you don't already know, look up the gardening zone for your area. (I'm in zone 0b.)
I've found that some online sources, including blogs, forums, and Facebook groups offer great ideas and advice on gardening in remote or off grid locations.
Additionally, local libraries may carry books specific to gardening in different climates.
Consulting with experienced gardeners who successfully grow vegetables off the grid can also be a great source of information and inspiration for new ideas.
And while we're on the topic, one of my dearest friends, Franziska, operates her market garden and CSA box business from the next lake over.
Follow along with her Low Bush Artworks and Wild Foods Instagram account to see a few pics of the amazing bounty she produces from her off grid farmstead.
Finally, there are numerous online resources available that provide guidance on how to build and plan a garden when you live off the grid.
These tools often include tips on selecting sites for planting, soil preparation techniques, how to choose plants and seeds suitable for cold climates, as well as advice on harvesting in colder months that may be sensitive to frost or other temperature fluctuations.
Common Mistakes to Avoid when Gardening Off the Grid
One of the most common mistakes to avoid is planting too much all at once or too soon.
While you may feel tempted to get a jump start on the growing season, if you have limited resources such as water and soil fertility, it's best to start small. Then gradually increase your garden’s size over time.
Also, choose your fruits, vegetables, and herbs for your garden with climate conditions in mind. Then plant them in areas that will receive enough sunlight for them to thrive.
Over-watering plants can also lead to problems, so adjust watering schedules according to local weather patterns. Plus, make sure plants don't end up standing water for extended periods of time.
Sustainable Off Grid Gardening
There's no getting around it. Maintaining an off grid vegetable garden for the long term requires continual attention.
You'll need to keep an eye on soil quality and temperature, as well as plan for frosty or wet weather conditions.
To rotate crops each season and consider new options for planting vegetables that can withstand colder climates and changing climate conditions.
Additionally, you'll need to weed and prune regularly. Remember, mulching with organic material such as leaves or straw helps retain moisture in the soil during dry spells and keeps temperatures more consistent overall. This is good news if you can't or won't use a sprinkler.
Finally, collecting rainwater in tanks or barrels lets you conserve water while ensuring your garden plants stay hydrated throughout the year.
Plan ahead. Use methods or strategies like permaculture, cold frames, container gardening, and local area plant selection to create a self-sustaining garden in even the harshest climates.
Planting and growing food off the grid is an excellent way to become a more self-sufficient family. Plus, you'll get to enjoy the delicious fruits of your labor!
Finally, the most important lesson I've learned after 10 years of gardening off the grid is that patience and trial and error are essential.
As with anything, you don't become an expert overnight. Learning how to garden in an off-grid environment takes time and experience.
Don't be afraid to experiment and have fun, as each gardening season brings new challenges and rewards.