The context in which this article is written is to attempt to give guidance and provoke thought and inspiration to those determined individuals who wish to be as self sufficient as possible by growing as much of their own food as possible. Everything in this article has been tried and to varying degrees produced results for my family. Our little farm rests just below 7,000 feet in elevation with much sun, wind and deep spring snows, with temperatures in winter falling briefly to 15 or so below zero to highs in the upper 90’s and even the 100’s for at least 30 to 40 days during the summer. I mention this only as a means of encouragement – many, many parts of the country and especially parts of the Redoubt have a much more hospitable climate for producing one’s own food. This article will attempt to outline in as brief but thorough means possible from choosing a site to starting seed through tillage and tools needed, as well as other considerations for the long haul. I will not cover food preservation means and methods as volumes have covered that topic already.
The Garden Site In choosing your garden site, assumptions will be made that at least a few acres of land are available for gardening at your retreat. Whether clearing an opening in a woodlot, fencing off a chunk of prairie or placing your garden spot in a lush valley, all gardens will need decent soil (which can be improved over time), ample amount of sunlight and water. Where I live, an old homestead had been used for a dairy farm with a huge old barn built in the 1890s with old wood stanchions . My first thought was to wonder where all that manure must have been placed. There is a flat area north of the barn of several acres that seemed to be the obvious place to haul manure. After some explorations with a shovel, this proved to be the case. The soil on the flat had nearly a foot of black humus soil atop the sand that lie beneath it (and everywhere else for that matter). Choose a spot like this if possible. Soil gets amended naturally over the previous eons in some areas. In a woodlot, look where leaves and dead trees and duff have decayed for years – this will be a good start for a garden site. If you’re lucky enough (or wise enough) to have acquired a lush valley with good topsoil, beware of low-lying areas and try to situate your garden site on a bit of a rise for drainage purposes. Once your site location is determined, you might want to consider fencing around it to protect it from the ubiquitous predators that lie in wait for freshly sown seeds, newly sprouted sprouts and the bountiful harvest that they will undoubtedly lay claim to! Choose the fence that that will be tight enough to keep out the rabbits and tall enough to keep out the deer – you’re on your own for elk, though fortunately they don’t seem to be as interested in high quality, home-grown produce as deer; and thank God for that. My favorite is 1 ½” x 3” rectangle woven wire or welded wire fence attached to well-set posts at least 5’ remaining above the ground, set 3’ deep in the ground. Deer can jump over this height; but, with some reflectors and a few Mylar balloons, don’t seem to want to risk it. Place a 10’ gate at each end if your garden is fairly large, as well as a man gate. Be sure to place the wire over your gates as well. I suggest leaving at least 10’ around the long sides of your garden beyond your intended garden plot on each side and at least 25’ on the ends. You will need gates to enter the garden and ample room to turn around tractors / horses with implements on the ends. The room along the sides is nice to have when staging gardening supplies, planting and harvesting.
If your property is hilly, try to situate your garden site on the side of the hill that faces to the south and east. Your garden will get the most amount of sunlight if situated at this angle. Also, if on hilly ground, be sure to plant your rows across the hill to avoid erosion and collect as much rainwater as you can between the rows. If you plant up and down the hillside, the water will just course rapidly down the hill between the rows doing more harm than good. If in an existing woodlot, do some studies on when the sun clears the top of the trees at daybreak and when it goes back behind the trees in the evening. You may have to clear the opening in the forest canopy a bit more so your garden spot can get full morning sun and at least a good portion of early afternoon sun. Even with sufficiently good soil and water, your garden will never reach its full potential without sun. Keep in mind that when seeding and transplanting in your garden in the spring, the days will be getting longer for a month or so, depending on your latitude and frost dates. As your plants mature throughout the summer, the days will be getting shorter and shorter.
This window from spring frost date through the first frost date of fall is a crucial measurement, which we get into later.
Water. Obviously there is no life without water – a truth that is as constant for us as God’s creatures as it is for God’s creation that we will be stewards of, our plants. Most of us in a rural environ will obtain water by one of a few ways besides relying solely on the waters that fall from the heavens. We will either utilize a well, a cistern or tank or a ditch carrying water via gravity from a river, stream or maintained and regulated irrigation ditch. Just a note on maintained irrigation ditches. For those newly relocated to the west and part of a “water district”, spring is a wonderful time to meet your neighbors on the ditch. Each spring brush must be cut back and leaves, twigs, branches and other things that impede the flow of water must be removed prior to the ditch being “turned on”. The best way to fit in and prove yourself a productive and trustworthy member of your immediate community is to find out when the ditch cleaning work is to be done. Showing up in long sleeves, long pants, sturdy boots with work gloves, pruners, rake, shovel or chainsaw will break the ice of the most hardened of the native residents. Don’t overlook this opportunity.
If you are on a well, hopefully you can run a water line from the well to your garden area and install a frost-free hydrant rated for your area. That means that the amount of hydrant pipe buried will put your water line connection to the hydrant below the frost depth to avoid freezing and breaking your waterline. Don’t skip on this – better to be two feet too deep than two inches too shallow! Many people choose to use 1 ½” black poly pipe as their water line material. This may or may not be a good choice. In our area, subterranean critters like to sharpen their teeth on plastic. I would suggest 1 ½” Schedule 40 PVC for a longer lasting waterline that won’t be chewed through by rodents. The other water source you may use is a cistern or a tank – some kind of collection apparatus. As a kid in Kentucky, nearly every rural home got its water from a cistern fed by all the downspouts. The frequent Kentucky rains kept the cistern full in all but the most severely dry summers – rare as they were. In some cases, if your roof (which feeds the cistern) is a fair distance from your garden, you may end up placing a tank nearer to the garden site and pumping water to it periodically. From this point, water can be distributed by the means of a small pump, whether electric, solar or hand.
If on a well and reliant on its continual proper functioning, I highly recommend laying in or installing a hand pump. Most wells will require a deep well hand pump to deliver water from 100’ to 250’ or so. One could also use a solar water pump. Whatever you prefer, please follow the rules of JWR’s “redundant redundancy” and plan on your electric pump failing at some point – maybe for an extended period. In my own garden, I have grown quite fond of the T-tape drip flat tape connected to a header pipe on the upper end, long side of the garden, connected then to the hydrant and monitored by means of a battery powered timer. This is the most efficient use of water for me, losing none to evaporation from a sprinkler and providing a consistent means of watering. In the heat of the summer, I set my timer to water at 4:00 AM and 4:00 PM for 60 minutes each. This system of drip tape placed down each row and covered by mulch will give you a very dependable and successful watering means. With care in the fall, one can get multiple uses out of the tape. Roll it up on a coffee can and store in a dark place throughout the off-season. As another thought provoker, I suggest obtaining some good old galvanized three-gallon watering cans. If worse comes to worst, the rows can be hand watered by means of sprinkling cans drawn from your deep well hand pump. No electricity – no problem!
Seeding. Winter always brings much anticipation to the family that looks forward to growing their own food. Seed company catalogs begin showing up around the first of the year and many hours get spent thumbing through them over and over looking for the varieties that suit your individual needs. A good place to start is to go back to the growing window previously mentioned. With help from the local county agriculture extension agent and Hardiness Zone charts, and especially neighbors in your immediate area who have experience, you can get a pretty good idea of your average first and last frost dates. With this knowledge, you can then choose the seeds that have a maturation period that will work for your own area. Example: if your last frost of the spring normally falls around May 30 and your first fall frost normally hits around September 30, then you have a 120-day season. If you choose a tomato variety that takes 80 days to mature and you want to enjoy tomatoes in the summer, then you had better get an early start under grow lamps or greenhouse so the plants are big enough to actually produce fruit for a longer period of your season. There are lots of resources to help you in this. One of the best I’ve found is Seed Sowing and Saving, by Carole B. Turner, from the Ark Institute. This is a wonderful book that helps determine when to sow, transplant and little tips along the way for a huge selection of vegetables and herbs.
Starting seeds can be accomplished in sterilized dirt mixed with perlite in left over milk jugs cut in half or many other containers. However, for the more serious gardener who is actually going to produce enough food for an average sized family, I would suggest making an investment in the more durable trays. These will last many seasons if cared for and are large enough to germinate several hundred seeds per tray depending on the type. I would also suggest spending the money and purchasing some germination mix. Storing away half dozen bales of Pro-Mix will last most serious home gardeners a decade or more. I’ve personally been using Pro-Mix for germination soil for thirty years or better and always find it consistent. Keep in mind that you will only be using this germination soil mix for the vegetables that need to be sown early and then transplanted into pots after germination and then finally transplanted to the garden. This includes cabbage, broccoli, kale, cauliflower, tomatoes, peppers and the longer maturing plants. The other direct seeded vegetables that mature more quickly like corn, beans, peas, squashes, beets, radish, spinach, lettuces and the like don’t need to be started and then transplanted – thus the “direct seed” classification. Back to starting seeds. Make a calendar of sorts once you determine your Hardiness Zone and frost dates, then add to that what your going to start, how your going to start it and when your going to transplant if needed. For instance, cabbage, kale, broccoli and cauliflower can be started early in your germination soil under grow lamps and/or heat mats under the trays. To start seeds in trays, mix a wheelbarrow or other large open topped container of Pro-Mix and warm water thoroughly and let sit for a few hours, covered if possible to retain heat. Large plastic totes with lids works well for this and can be used for this purpose from year to year. Once mixed and rested, add this to the trays and spread out with your hands as best as you can. I like to use a piece 2” x 2” cut as long as the tray is wide and screed the soil off level about a half inch from the top. Then, once level, tamp it down a bit with the same wooden piece. Scratch some lines crossways every inch or so for rows – not deep, just enough to see a row. Then place the seeds in the rows spaced a half inch to an inch apart, careful to not let them touch each other. Then, sprinkle a fine layer of dry Pro-Mix on top, label what type of plants are in the tray with a waterproof marker and plastic label. Spray some warm water from a little pump up hand sprayer on top, cover with a sheet of plastic and place under the lights, or on top of a heat mat. In just a few short days most plants will germinate. Leave the plastic on top until all the seeds are 1” or so high. Remove the plastic but keep either under the lights or on the mat. Some seeds like light, some don’t. Some seeds like bottom heat, some don’t.
You are creating a whole cycle and you will be busy! Germinating, transplanting, tilling, direct seeding, transplanting again, setting out drip tape, mulching, staking, setting trellises, etc. I always feel like a timer is ticking away in the spring and everything has to be done at a certain time to maximize the harvest. It is a little stressful –or can be – but be sure to try to keep it fun. It is, after all, a very important part of your self-sufficiency and should be enjoyable for the family. Okay –next, direct seeding. Peas can be directly sown in the garden as soon as the soil can be worked. After the cabbage and kale have germinated and have been transplanted into peat pots and have stems about as thick as a pencil, they can join the peas in an early place in the garden, as these crops can stand a light early frost or two in the spring. Then the tomatoes and peppers, started a little later than the cabbage and early starters can be transplanted into their peat pots. I mention transplanting into peat pots because I find them to be the best and most economical vessel to transplant into. As soon as your plants germinate and grow a second little leaf, carefully remove them from the tray and place in a 3” peat pot full of partial Pro-Mix and partial topsoil. These little plants will develop a strong root system while growing and waiting to be transplanted again into the garden. Just peel away the bottom of the peat pot and plant when the time is right. At this point, I feel that cooler and drier is preferable to warmer and wetter. Your transplants growing in the 3” pots will grow thicker – less spindly – if kept out of the heat. My favorite thing to do at this point is to place some of these plants in hotbeds. My hotbeds are 3’ x 12’ in size, built out of 2”x12” boards. To these I have a center 2”x4” laying flatways in the center for support. On top, I have some 8mil twin wall polycarbonate hinged on the back to allow me to open and close them. As a kid, we had boxes made of cypress that would never rot, and cypress frames with 6”x6” plate glass “shingles” between rows of tenons. But, those are gone forever, I’m afraid. Place in these boxes a deep layer of green manure, followed by straw, topped off finally with good topsoil about the first of the year. By the time your plants in the three-inch pots are thick as pencils, plant them in the hotbeds. I assure you, these will be the hardiest and healthiest plants you have on the place. Then, once the danger of frost passes, relocate them to the main garden. As another consideration, remember those subterranean critters mentioned earlier? I would advise screwing some wire lathe or hardware cloth to the bottoms. They will burrow up into a really nice and warm buffet without it. I hate doing this because it makes cleaning the beds the next fall much more difficult, but we have to do it here.
Hopefully that is somewhat clear. Mixing soil, seeding, covering, heating, transplanting after the second leaf comes – that’s all there is to it.
Planting the garden. Now that most everything is ready to plant outside into the garden, I’m going to skip the tillage and focus on layout and planting. There are several internet sites that discuss companion planting, so I’m just going to touch on it briefly. I typically lay out the rows at 36” apart, at least that’s the distance between my valves for the drip tape in my header pipe. Try to think of where your prevailing wind comes from. Can you use tall corn for shading the row or two next to it? Remember that corn likes to planted in blocks rather than just a long row or two. Often I will plant summer squash in four or five rows for the first fifteen feet, then corn, ending off the last fifteen feet of those 5 rows with zucchini. Then I have a block of corn rows instead of several long ones – they’ll germinate better. Many crops can be double rowed, that is, plant a row on each side of the drip tape. Bush beans, beats, spinach, lettuce all work well in double rows and you can squeeze more into your space. I haven’t touched on potatoes, onions or garlic yet. These are easily self-propagating. That is, you might have to buy seed potatoes your first year, but then you can plant what’s left over the next – same with garlic. I usually buy onion sets each year. I have determined that a good-sized garden for a family of 6 like ours is 80’ wide x 200’ long. In that size garden, we can raise enough (5 rows) potatoes to feed us all year and have plenty left over to plant the next. We can raise enough green beans (2 double rows) to eat fresh frequently in the summer and put up 60 or so quart jars. The 5 rows of corn (most years) allow us to eat fresh corn on the cob in the summer and still put up 60 or so quart jars. Lettuce and spinach needs to be planted every week throughout the summer for a steady supply. One row of tomatoes is plenty for eating and canning salsa, while another row of a “paste” variety is plenty for canning tomato sauce and paste. One half row of jalapeños, one half row of chili’s and one row of bells gives us plenty to eat and freeze. Two rows of broccoli works well to feed us all summer and early fall and still provide enough to freeze 50 or so gallon freezer bags. One row of green cabbage provides plenty to fill at least three crock batches of kraut and slaw to freeze. One double row of beets, one double row of carrots, one double row turnips work well for us. We plant two rows of pickling cucumbers and only a half row or so of slicing cucumbers. Two rows of butternut squash, two rows of acorn squash and one row of pumpkins round things out. What a pleasure! What a blessing! Fresh food right off the place all summer. Canned and fresh frozen or stored in the root cellar the rest of the year for family and plenty for those left fortunate at our church’s food drive.
Tillage. I skipped over this because it’s sort of the Alpha and Omega of the garden process. Caring for your soil is a big part of the health, productivity and longevity of your garden and the one that will have the longest learning curve. When to till, how to till, how deep to till, no till, cover crops, etc. all come into play and will take a lifetime of learning to reach its maximum potential for your individual seasons, crops, soil type, weed types and other factors. I’m going to refer to a very fine book on this subject – the New Horse Powered Farm, by Stephen Leslie. It covers small farming and vegetable production performed with horses, but is applicable to tilling with small garden tractors and walk behind rototillers as well. I’m partial to using horses for working the garden. I’ll be 50 next year and started cultivating my tobacco crop with a single mule and an adjustable width, walk behind cultivator in my early teens. Soil doesn’t get compacted under the weight of the tractor tires, oil doesn’t drip from the old engine, horses can get on soil earlier in the spring, just after the frost is out without wallowing in the mud and many other advantages for the retreat gardener. Maybe someday, most importantly, tractors need gas, oil, filters or spare parts, which might be hard to come by for an extended period of turmoil. I’m sure folks that haven’t spent much time around livestock might be intimidated. I will suggest a breed like the Haflinger for a retreat garden (and general work around the retreat). They are smaller than the huge draft breeds, have wonderful dispositions and their DNA contains centuries of living with their masters in high mountain small farms in the Austrian highlands. Seems like a match made in heaven for hardy Redoubters, huh?
Resources. I feel obligated to mention some companies and products that have been an important part of my gardening for decades. I receive no compensation of any kind for mentioning them.
Harris Seeds. While I don’t use a lot of their seeds, they do have good supplies as far as drip tape, trays, nozzles and other supplies.
Pioneer Equipment. The Homesteader is a high quality, well-engineered horse drawn system for the small farmer/gardener. Plows, discs, harrows, hillers, etc. can be added and removed and the cost is very affordable.
Planet Jr. These are the original walk behind seeders. I’ve personally planted uncounted miles of rows with one of these. Finding one will be difficult and replacement handles from Farmer Brown’s Plow Shop might be necessary, but it’s worth the effort. They are all steel and cast iron construction that will never, ever wear out. Be sure to find one with the different sized seed discs and the legend under the hopper cover matching the seed to the proper hole in the proper disc. This linked site features the new style seeder that replaced the old model. I’ve not used these new models but the site is worth visiting and the seeders look better than all the plastic ones I’ve seen. From time to time old ones can be found on Ebay.
Ark Institute. Check them out not only for the book I mentioned, but most importantly for their good selection of non-GMO seeds.
Pro-Mix. Mentioned often, I feel this is the best germination medium out there. Try to find the big bales – they stack better.
Simple Pump. Deep well hand water pumps that work amazingly well and are built to last.
The Small Farmers Journal. A really good periodical that covers every angle of small farming with livestock.
American Haflinger Registry. This web site has info on breeders and shows across the country that showcase the Haflinger breed.
I’m somewhat reluctant to mention pesticides, but even when marigolds and herbs are planted throughout the garden to drive away insects, often a little more is needed. Personally, I will have a pretty good store of Sevin Dust and Dipel stored away and suggest that you do to. I’m sure some folks will gripe, but it is extremely difficult to raise many types of vegetables without a little help from the chemistry lab – not applying too close to harvest and thorough washing of course.
I’m hopeful that all of us that are fans of this wonderful site can grow more self-sufficient for the troubled times that await us. I have strived to be self-sufficient most of my life and learn something new nearly everyday while reading SurvivalBlog. It is truly a blessing for those of us with our eyes wide open.