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  1. I’m glad you mentioned about rototillers being detrimental to soil structure. Most gardeners way overdo it with their use. I agree on your philosophy of only using them for initial site preparation and mixing in compost, etc. Another very important point (perhaps your most important one) is that way too many “would be” gardeners have a stash of seed they purchased that has been sitting on a shelf for way too many years all the while the germination going down each year and not getting out and getting first hand experience. There definitely is a learning curve ahead.

    I’ve been interested in gardening for about 50 years, been saving my seeds for 40 of those years, been breeding plants for 30 years and soil testing for 10 years. Every year that goes by I learn something new.

    Thanks for a great article – looking forward to the second half.

  2. I suggest to anyone with the means to build some type of greenhouse/hoop house. It can be done affordably. We’re still eating greens from our hoop house that were planted last fall. When everyone is freaking out at the grocery store, we just walk to the back yard. The ability to grow year round is very important in times like these.

  3. Thanks for a timely article St. Funogas!
    You made me laugh thinking about the first time I threw bean seeds in the soil and after very little work, I felt like a genius when they began sprouting up. It was only after a reminder from my daughter, “Daddy, we did that in 2nd grade in a styrofoam cup” and the subsequent death of those sprouts that I realized it takes years to learn even a fraction of basic gardening skills. That was 11 years ago and I’m still learning. Thank you!

    1. Hi D.D. Thanks for the best laugh I’ve had all week. 🙂 I’m glad to hear you’re still at it after 11 years. Gardening is definitely rewarding and there’s no penalties for failures. I was about 7 when a neighbor gave me some seeds and my folks turned me loose in the backyard. Just like you, I felt like a “genius” and the wonder of it all has never let go of me. Fortunately the successes have far outweighed the failures and the successes are pretty tasty too.

  4. Hey David ‘n’ Goliath, sounds like we have a lot in common. I’d love to hear some specifics on your soil testing. That’s something I need to start doing for my tomatoes, peppers, and tomatillos.

    1. St. Funogas,

      Thanks for your comment. I used to work for the University of Minnesota in the horticulture department and I also volunteered my time in their Master Gardener program. My first soil test that I ever took was sent off to their soil testing lab. After all where else would I send it? Right? In my reading and researching I came across other soil testing labs and various methods. Since I have always had a “hunger” for science, even as a small child, I decided to try some of the “alternatives” to the “University Method”. I’m glad I did. I once read the following statement on the back of a book on alternative agriculture: “Disease and pests are the sign of a failing crop, not the cause of it.” The first time I read that I thought to myself, “That doesn’t make any sense”. Well it does now. Perfect sense. It is based on reproducible science. Most, if not all, modern agriculture / horticulture, etc. falls into one of three categories:
      (1) Conventional. Mostly synthetic chemicals of various kinds, whether it be fertilizer, insecticide, fungicide, herbicide … (Monsanto anybody?)
      (2) Organic. None of the above nasties allowed. Mostly natural methods and to be “official” must be certified by the USDA or some other regulatory authority to be advertised and sold as such. (note: some of the “ORGANIC” produce from China is NOT organic. They have been caught before with intentional mislabeling. But they have paid the fee to be “Organic”. “Follow the money” as the saying goes.)
      (3) Sustainable. This method ignores the above two categories if it does not fit into a scientifically reproducible model. It relies on soil testing and amending with what is needed, not what is assumed to be needed either by tradition or what someone one the other side of the globe did. Most people that use this method do not rely on any university testing or at home (do it yourself “shake and bake”) type testing method as they are very incomplete. If a soil testing lab does does not provide a readout for calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, iron, manganese, zinc, copper, phosphorus, sulfur, boron, pH and CEC I will not waste my time and money on that lab. Under some conditions (initial testing on a new piece of ground usually) I will also have the lab test for cobalt, selenium, chromium, molybdenum, arsenic, nickel and cadmium.

      I’ve found that a lot of the soils in the Redoubt region are high in magnesium, which precludes the use of any dolomitic limestone or epsom salts. They are also typically low in the micronutrient selenium. They are however usually fairly good in the rare earth elements that aid in human and animal health and longevity. Can you say ytterbium or zirconium? Unfortunately there are no books for home gardeners or preppers that do justice to this subject. Agriculture? Yes. Gardeners? No. I actually would like to write a few articles for the blog on this subject. I’m more of a researcher than a writer, though, but I guess I need to be an “old dog that learns a new trick”.


      1. Hi David, thank you very much for this detailed response. Your statement, “disease and pests are the sign of a failing crop, not the cause of it,” makes a lot of sense.

        I’d love to see you put an article together on your research of this topic. I’m a researcher as well, I only write articles so I can help myself sort it all out and keep it organized. I’m getting too old to find anything in my notes anymore so if I don’t summarize, it’s lost. 🙂

  5. Thank you!
    Just what we needed. It is spring and time to get some dirt under the nails,
    Truth be told we have already started and I appreciate this article.

    Your comment about “gardening knowledge doesn’t necessarily transfer well from one location to another” is important. I have found in my case it does not even transfer from season to season.
    I have also found that just because my grandparents were all farmers their knowledge did not transfer through the DNA. Wouldn’t that be great?
    I must work at understanding the whens and whys to be successful. It is incredible how seedings can lift your spirits. I know mustard seeds are small but so are tomato seeds. Truly gifts from God.
    I have also found that small local farmers often willing share their knowledge as long as you respect their time and space.

    Now if I can just get a plum this year……

    1. “I have also found that just because my grandparents were all farmers their knowledge did not transfer through the DNA. Wouldn’t that be great?”

      Hi Lee, their knowledge doesn’t transfer but I’ve often wondered if the desire was genetic?

      One of my grandfathers was a great gardener. He took a waste area on a hillside and turned it into the most beautiful garden in the neighborhood and for over 50 years I don’t think anyone realized he didn’t actually own the property. He had a wonderful raspberry patch which he tended to with great skill and care. He taught me how to stake and tie them up, cut out the two-year canes after they had produced berries in order to make room for the newcomers which would bear next year. So 40 years later I used to feel unimaginable pangs of guilt when I just mowed my own raspberry patch with a mower in order to save time, using a fall-crop-only system. My blackberry hedge, on the other hand, needs tending like my grandpa used to do with his raspberries. One day last summer while tying up the canes (just like he showed me on raspberries), and feeling guilty for the umpteenth time about the raspberries, I heard my grandpa whisper in my ear, “It’s okay, you be the blackberry meister and I’ll be the raspberry meister. It’s all good.”

      For me, gardening is so much more than just planting seeds in the ground and harvesting natures bounty at the end of the summer. It’s so many things on so many different levels, even allowing me to spend time with my long-past grandpa every year when I’m pruning the blackberry hedge and tying up the new canes. And it’s all good.

      1. I often think of my Dad and the conversations we had when working outside around the house. I think this is how we keep them in our thoughts & in our hearts. And by sharing these thoughts with our children & grand children, pass on so much knowledge to our kids in this way.

  6. This is a fun article. Thanks for posting. The book Eating On The Wild Side was a game changer for our family.

    We stopped growing the varieties of overly sweet fruits like golden raspberries and Golden Delicious apples that bring on pre-diabetic health issues and switched to varieties like Marionberries and Grannie Smith apples.

    Each year we try to plant multiple varieties of things such as three types of beans, three types of tomatoes, four types of potato, fivectyoes of squash.

    Soil testing and quite often is cheap and available. Most counties have a program available.

    Two nutrients commonly deficient for our food crops are nitrogen and lime or gypsum. In wetter areas both are often missing. Lime is just 10 bucks per 40 pound bag which can do your whole garden.

    Short on nitrogen? Dilute urine to a rate of 1 part to 10 parts water and apply to soil, not directly onto plants. Composted animal manure is far and away a much better source of nitrogen as well as other nutrients compared to urine, but use what you have.

    For tomato production, use the wood ashes you save in a metal (NOT plastic… too many fires caused that way!) bucket and spread them over your garden area. Wood ashes also help reduce small insect populations which damage your green leafy crops.

    1. Hi Wheatley, lots of good info in your comments.

      I’m a big advocate of trialing varieties as I will cover in one of the next installments. Since you mentioned squashes, one thing to be aware of is that they readily cross breed which ruins the seed for the following season. Many people are already aware of that but what they aren’t aware of is how to easily prevent it. Here’s the trick, aside from isolating blossoms and all those “labor intensive” methods.

      The majority of squashes that we plant in our gardens fall into three species, which do not interbreed. If we stick to trialing three varieties each year, one from each species, we will pretty much guarantee that we won’t have any cross breeding going on. Most heritage seed catalogs will list the Latin name of the squash variety to help us select our varieties by species if we are trying to be specific. (Pun intended!)

      Here is also a general list of squash by species:


    2. I got the online version of Eating On The Wild Side and really enjoy it.

      Please see my above comment about soil testing. It is worthwhile, but it does make a big difference in which lab you use.

  7. Thank you for this article. I’ve been gardening at high altitude on the front range of the Rockies for 25 years and am still learning. Much has evolved over the years and it can be a bit challenging but we’ve adapted to our location. I confess that I’ve often thought about how the settlers survived….I think on a lot of game! Still thankful to have my garden especially now. Agree totally on no till and using lots of homemade compost. I need to continue to get better on seed saving and would’t mind having a second greenhouse to manage season overlap but no immediate plans on that. Blessings to all!

  8. The last two years have been a learning experience for us, so we’re going much bigger this year. We had planned this even before everything went crazy. We’re trying to double our output this year, and we’re looking forward to getting our granddaughters out there and getting their hands in the dirt.

  9. Great article. It’s very true that gardening is a hands-on learning experience, which continues from year to year and from location to location.
    Since we rent and have no yard (we grow a bit in buckets on our balcony), my family has a fairly large community garden (the kind where you pay a small fee for a plot, not the kind where each gardener’s produce is shared between all members [ugh]), and our soil is quite clayey, but we have seen it improve over the past 5 years at our plot with our additions of home compost, manure, and purchased gardening manure bags. We’ve used shrimp compost, chicken and sheep manure compost, and some horse manure. We’ve tried leaves, woodchips, and straw to keep weeds down, and currently use a combination of straw and leaves.
    A lot of our “gardening neighbors” rototill each spring, and we see the effect it has on their gardens- they are less vibrant and lose the ecosystem and life of their soil. We have only rototilled once to break up an old weedy plot.
    I laughed when you wrote about Italians and their tomatoes- it’s very true. I live in a neighborhood with a lot of older Italians, and most of them grow a prolific amount of tomatoes, among other things. A good gardener is almost a saint 🙂

    1. Miss Victor, it sounds like you’re getting gobs of experience trying all kinds of different ideas. You’re a perfect example of no matter where we are and what our circumstances, we can do some gardening and learn from the experience. It sounds like you’ve probably already tried more things than some of my country neighbors who garden. 🙂

      I’ve always found it fascinating that tomatoes are such a national food of Italy, and potatoes of Ireland, and yet those are both New World plants that made their way to Europe after the Americas were discovered.

  10. “The Garden of Eden shall burst forth and in no time at all you’ll have so much food from your garden”

    Now for that you need a G.E.C.K., pretty hard to come by these days.

    A little humor, sorry.

  11. Down South, I encourage folks to garden as much as possible. Spring is here, and with the Virus related isolation,
    now is a perfect time to start one. Who knows what the rest of 2020 will bring…

    I recommend the following two books:
    1) All New Square Foot Gardening, 3rd Ed by Mel Bartholomew
    2) The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times by Carol Deppe

    Build yourself some 4×4 ft squares and plant the following:
    Dent corn
    Seminole Squash

    Try to get some local heirloom seeds…

    Also, install some rain barrels, try some Shiitake mushroom logs, a small chicken tractor, and a couple of bee hives.

    FL now lets folks grow gardens in their front yards:

    The downside of this is the expense of Mel’s Mix… I wish there was a cheaper substitute…

    1. A quick comment on the Seminole Squash you mentioned. Although I’ve never grown that particular variety of squash I have grown some like it in the same plant species. They typically tend to be good keepers. One online source describes them as being:

      “Resistant to vine borers. Extremely hard rind must be cracked like a coconut. Stores nearly forever. A great performer in the south and along the Atlantic seaboard, it loves hot humid climates.”

      My experience with this species (Cucurbita moschata – see the book titled Seed to Seed for more info on this) is that they are also quite resistant to powdery mildew. Have you noticed this with them where you garden?

    2. Indeed, we’ve been waiting on the seemingly daily deluges to stop here though. ( unwritten rule in Texas, plant anything you want after Easter ) It is hard to garden in a quagmire. 🙂

  12. Thanks for the article St. Funogas!
    I would advise caution with what you put in your compost though as things don’t always go that well. To illustrate: my parents have a garden and we compost for it (sometimes). Some years ago we put some cantaloupe guts in our compost bin. The seeds ended up in the cucumber area and we got cucalopes! They tasted awful! Please be careful!

  13. Yes so true!! I moved from zone 9b to zone 5 – our latest frost date is June 15th. Last year, I used a lot of felt pots on my large deck and everything was going fine, until the squirrels realized there were strawberries and tomatoes. I didn’t realize who the thieves were for awhile. I thought my plants were just not bearing fruit. Then one day I saw this little squirrel pulling, pulling, pulling a tomato half his size!! That little critter scampered over the edge holding that tomato as if his life depended upon it. And I caught him red handed with a large strawberry. LOL. I laughed so hard. We also have lots of deer and wild turkey who love to peruse the currant bushes that grow wild where I live. Sigh… For some reason, the squirrels didn’t bother the lettuce, carrots, or potatoes. Hmmmm… Altho much of our growing is in the greenhouse this year, I have a little curiosity about planting patches in the forest around me on my property rather than in a fenced garden. I think there’s enough sun coming through – it was previously thinned. LOL.

    1. Hey SaraSue, so THAT’S where the term “red handed” comes from! lol. I had a great laugh picturing those guys stealing you blind. Reminds me of my own little bandits. Sometimes I’ve had to set up my game camera to be able to solve the riddles. I have a cold-hardy fig which dies to the ground in most years, and on a good year I’ll only get maybe 50 figs. So I really don’t like sharing them with the wildlife. One branch that reached over the garden fence was visited each day by a large… buck! He kept it picked clean. Each day while mom and the two fawns would graze the pasture, he sneak over and check for any figs. Lots of similar stories as I’m sure we all have. But the entertainment value is worth far more than the food I give up. 🙂

  14. St. Funogas! An excellent article, and a fun read. Thank you so much for sharing this with all of us. We agree completely. It’s time to garden. …and for those of us who already garden, it’s a great time to expand on those efforts. There is always something new to learn whether at the beginning or down the road a bit. We grow both in ground (inside a greenhouse and outdoors) and hydroponically (in the greenhouse). One of our most interesting studies related water temperature and pH to bioaccessibility of nutrients. Get the science right, and VOILA! Healthy and productive plants.

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