Get Going on Gardening – Part 2, by St. Funogas

(Continued from Part 1.)

If you’re on a tighter budget, then there are inexpensive ways to create a lot of compost for next year’s garden. You can start a huge compost pile by cleaning out chicken coops, animal stalls, obtaining mushroom spawn from your local mushroom farm, adding grass clippings, Starbucks coffee grounds, dead leaves, etc. Do some googling and brainstorming to come up with ideas on how to get as much organic material as possible to get a huge first-year compost pile going. The woodier and the chunkier the materials, the slower they will compost so avoid things like wood chips and sawdust. Leaves will compost more quickly if you run over them with a lawn mower several times. If you are going to be using lawn clippings, it is best to let them dry out on the lawn before raking them up and adding them to the compost. Otherwise, they will tend to mat down and not compost well.

One thing I highly recommend, which is a super-easy way to speed up your composting, is to save all your urine and pour it over your compost pile. (Guys, you can also make what I call a “direct deposit.”) Urine is a hugely overlooked resource that I rarely see discussed in TEOTWAWKI situations, or gardening and self-reliance blogs. Urine is basically sterile so it is safe to work with. Not only that, but it is a source of free nitrogen. Since we no longer have the freedom to buy bagged ammonium nitrate in this country, there is not a cheaper, easier way to apply nitrogen to our gardens and compost piles, than urine. It also contains potassium and phosphorus, two other nutrients gardens are often lacking.

Since urine also contains salt, if you are using it directly in the garden soil then dilute it down to about 4:1 before pouring it onto any plants. If you want to see some radical results, here’s a fun experiment to try. Pour some diluted urine on the soil around every other tomato plant in your garden and take a look at them three days later. The treated plants will be much darker. You can also pour urine on tree stumps to help speed up the rotting process.

Nitrogen is going to be the limiting factor in your compost pile. If you don’t have access to a lot of animal manures (many of which will have urine mixed in) then adding supplemental nitrogen will allow you to add much more brown material (dead, low-nitrogen things like leaves, sawdust and straw) to your compost pile and still have it degrade by next year to be able to add to your garden. Urine is free, and it seems crazy to just flush it down the toilet when you can convert it into “compost quickener” and then into beautiful garden soil. Again, it’s basically sterile and safe to work with. If you are trying to create a lot of compost in a hurry and need nitrogen but are adverse to the idea of using urine, then google “garden nitrogen sources,” or check Amazon and Walmart, and see which other nitrogen sources you might be comfortable with.

One last thing on soil improvement. If you are going to be planting any perennials in your garden such as raspberries, you’ll want to improve that soil first since you won’t be able to improve it much more after you get the raspberries planted. They’re not too picky anyway so unless you have especially bad soil, they should do okay. But you can always transplant them to better soil later on as well.

  1. Find out which varieties perform best in your exact location

This task will be time consuming but well worth the effort. I’ve been working on this one for ten years and still have a ways to go, but for me, it’s a very fun, challenging, and rewarding project.

For each of your high-value crops I recommend you try several varieties each year until you find one that is a superior performer in your particular garden. This is going to be more important on crops such as tomatoes, potatoes, squash, dry beans, tomatillos if you make a lot of salsa, and any other crops which you will be using a lot of for storage and canning.

Trialing is also important on herbs. I had to trial five different oregano varieties from different seed companies before I finally found one that was sufficiently flavorful (after drying) to suit my needs. Since it’s one of my most used herbs, it was well worth the effort. Fortunately, it’s also a perennial so I now have a lifetime supply of oregano.

Other herbs may require rogueing. I like a basil called Reddy Freddy because it’s dark purple and shows up nicely in recipes. Since a small percentage of the plants come up green, I weed those plants out to keep the seed I harvest producing as much red basil as possible in the next year’s crop.

A Case Study for Performance Trials

As a chili addict, I have been trying to find which of the hundreds of dry bean varieties will work best in my garden.

Here is an example of the kinds of characteristics you should be looking for as you evaluate varieties. The three dry bean varieties I grew in 2019 were called Hog Brains, Good Mother Stallard, and Garbanzos. Good Mother Stallard scored big points for growing straight up the trellis and then spreading out. That saved lots of space in the garden and made weeding easier. Hog Brains refused to grow up the trellis and spread out sideways instead. (They should have called it “No Brains.”) Each variety had 8 feet of row and the same number of plants. Hog Brains won hands down as best variety for the following reasons: Harvest was more than double the weight of Good Mother Stallard, all ripened at the same time, and they were super easy to shell. If I dedicate several rows to Hog Brains this year, it will more than likely supply all the chili beans I need for an entire year. While I am growing those, I will trial two more varieties just to be sure there isn’t something even more productive or tastier than Hog Brains. Garbanzo, which I was trialing for hummus, failed miserably and I harvested two whole beans. A fourth variety called Purple Yard Long can be used as a green bean or a dry bean. I use it as a green bean in a pickled three-bean salad which I use for canning. Since I was doing dry bean trials this year, I decided to let a portion of the crop mature to the point of drying so I could evaluate them as dry beans. This variety was a total failure as a dry bean. Insects scarred most of the dry beans in the green stage so they were deformed, the harvest was minimal, and the beans small. Of the four varieties trialed, Hog Brains won by a landslide.

What works for me won’t necessarily work in your garden so it is very important that you do trials to see what performs best for you and your tastes. If you have a seed vault, plant those varieties and start there. If you’re on a budget, do some googling and find a seed exchange in your area, or if there isn’t one close by, drive around and find a few large gardens in your area and just stop and talk to the owners. I’ve yet to meet a gardener who didn’t want to blab about their garden so they’d probably love to make your acquaintance, share some stories with you, and probably give you some free seeds as well. If somebody knocked on my door, I could set them up with more free seeds than they could handle for this year. There are a lot of other gardeners who would probably be more than happy to do the same thing if you just ask. Try it, what have you got to lose? Showing up with a basket of warm muffins will probably increase your odds. If they aren’t seed savers, they can at least give you some good advice on variety selection and other details to help you get started. And best of all, they may even turn into a mentor.

Things like butternut squash (and most “winter squash”) keep for 4-8 months in storage in a back room so they are a must-have for the survival garden. You can get free butternut squash seeds by buying a squash at the store for your dinner this week and saving the seeds. Your local farmer’s market is also a good place to get free seeds packaged inside of things like tomatoes, melons, peppers, squash, etc. and the grower will probably be more than happy to discuss growing tips with you. For fun, try planting some dry beans and lentils from your storage. From my storage, I will be planting an 8’ row each of red kidney and pinto beans this year in my trials.

Don’t overlook those racks of seeds at the dollar store if you’re on a tight budget. You can get radishes, cucumbers, and some of the more common flowers and vegetables for a dollar or sometimes 2/$1. Try these varieties out and see how they perform for you. They tend to have only minimal amount of seeds in them so buy more than one package of each kind you want to try. When you are out and about this summer and fall, keep your eyes peeled for seeds. The beautiful marigolds and zinnias in my garden are from dry seeds I harvested from plants growing in front of the post office. I did them a favor by trimming off the ugly dry heads and I did me a favor by taking those heads home and cleaning and saving the seeds. Last year I trimmed off some dead poppy heads, full of seeds for this year’s planting.

At this stage of my gardening, I get any new varieties I am trialing from other gardeners I talk to, or commercially from either Baker Creek Seeds or Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Both companies have very knowledgeable, friendly people who can help you with whatever you need. Baker Creek is probably the largest heirloom seed company in the country and they have a bazillion different kinds of seeds to trial, including some wild and crazy stuff. The heirloom seed companies all tend to be slightly expensive but since I am trying to figure out varieties like dry beans, sunflowers that won’t blow over in the wind, new herbs and mints for my herbal garden, cooking and teas, that leaves me with little choice but to try the varieties that are $2.75 a packet or trade with other gardeners. The beauty of heirloom seeds is that once you buy them, you never have to buy them again since you can now save your own seed. So think of it as an investment, not a purchase.

I should also mention herbs again here. A lot of the more popular herbs and medicinal plants are perennials so you only plant them once and you can harvest them for years to come. I grow four different perennial mints for my teas which I drink all winter long, and also grow all my own oregano and basil. Of these six, only basil is an annual that needs replanting each year.

Remember what I said about gardening knowledge not necessarily being transferable? Garlic is a super easy crop to grow every place I have ever lived, and then I moved to my current location. I’ve tried a bunch of different varieties but can’t seem to get it to grow any larger than about an inch in diameter and only about a quarter of the cloves I plant survive. Can you imagine life without garlic? Me neither. I’ve yet to see a post-apocalyptic book or movie showing garlic being used as a barter item. Now that would have some serious value as currency!

(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 3.)


  1. Good morning,

    I worked for Starbucks for 16 years, & YES you can just walk in and ask for used coffee grounds. If they don’t have any ready, ask them to save some for you. Generally, each store has a metal container out in the retail area that would have Silver bags within it, and each bag has grounds in it. But not every store does this on a regular basis (really busy, too lazy ect) You might have to go in regularly and start chatting up one of the employees (baristas) & get to know them (they are trained to recognize the local customer & provide a warm, welcoming experience) that way they will set aside coffee grounds especially for you!!
    I’m telling you this because at some of the stores I worked at the grounds were in high demand (obviously gardeners) so it’s best to be recognized , that way you will get them!
    Also, in the later years that I worked there, most of the grounds end up in the garbage as they switched over to espresso machines that have a puck drawer that is just pulled out when full and dumped into the garbage.
    Another thing to be aware of is that when you get grounds from them some will be really dry, and look like small little hockey pucks, but some will be really wet and you have to make sure you use these before they mold in the bags! (I had some bags in my garage that I forgot about & when opened them they were all moldy)!

    Go get some!! I would rather see these grounds mixed in the garden than just dumped in the garbage!!

    You wouldn’t believe how many 5lb bags of coffee they grind up and use everyday at every store !!

    Have a Rockin good day!

      1. Hi there,
        Thanks for asking about us, we’re doing Okay, all things considered. We’re about 100 miles outside of Chicago, our town being only about 800 population. We have everything we need and my husband is considered “Essential “ so we have worked out that he will bring me to Mom and Dads every other day as I was using that schedule already.

        My Brother (The Burlington Northern Engineer) is also an “Essential “ worker so my family alone is VERY lucky to still have income.

        I will let you all know if I hear any new news, we do not need to leave the house today or tomorrow for ANY reason

        I would also like to profess my profound gratitude to all of you that specifically asked about us yesterday. I’m so grateful to all of you.

        Have a Rockin great day!!!

    1. Hey RKRGRL68, thanks for the inside scoop on coffee grounds! 🙂 And I think the moldy ones are just “compost initiated.”

      On Dlew’s question on decaf grounds, I can’t imagine it would make any difference. Your earthworms may not be as alert but other than that, it should still make great humus for the garden by the time it gets there.

  2. From St. Funogas’ article: “Find out which varieties perform best in your exact location”

    Excellent advice, and another great read in the 2nd installment!

    Our strategy has been to identify the varieties that work best for our area, and have added to that the question of which varieties do best in-ground vs. in-greenhouse raised beds vs. in-greenhouse hydroponically grown. As we identify varieties that thrive, we focus in on those and grow fewer plants, but plants that are much more successful.

    We are praying for the success of everyone in their gardening endeavors — perhaps more important now than ever before. The SB editors and readers are a great resource for one another, and for others now just arriving on the preparedness scene. Gardeners as a group also tend to delightfully sharing people who love to teach the art and science of this endeavor to others.

    Remain steady. Be safe. Stay well everyone!

    1. “As we identify varieties that thrive, we focus in on those and grow fewer plants, but plants that are much more successful.”

      Hey T of A, I think you’ve really hit the nail on the head. The options of trialing won’t be available after the SHTF. Why take up precious greenhouse space with a variety that will produce 10 lbs/greens per square yard when you can grow another variety that would produce 25 lbs in the same space? Why grow one variety of potato in the garden that will produce 5 lbs per hill when another variety will produce 15 lbs per hill? These kinds of differences are real. It’s one thing to grow novelties and poor producers when times are good and Walmart is open, but I think those purple potatoes won’t be so novel anymore when I need 15 lbs/hill after the grid goes down.

      I’m a plant guy, I love plants and my garden has lots of novelties. But it’s also full of high producers and I’m constantly looking for higher producers. If the feces hit the fan, it’s just a matter of switching production from “I’m having fun” mode to fewer novelties and lots more potatoes, hog brains beans, and my other high-producing varieties. But I’ve done my homework ahead of time and know what varieties to go with, and, I’m constantly trying to upgrade to even better ones. It one of the things that makes gardening a constant, fun challenge.

  3. Great article, photo is awesome, wish my garden looked so good. I shred leaves in a trash can with a string weed wicker and add to compost pile, along with shredder junk mail. I also blanket raised beds with shredded leaves over winter & turn into beds in spring.

  4. My trellising arrangement for pole beans is a 16′ cattle panel supported on both side with 4 T posts, 2 per side, no need to wire them together. A 4’x16′ bed allows planting and easy harvest on both sides with the “trellis” in the middle. Non climbing vine is easily woven and retrained.

    1. There’s a young woman on YouTube that I just stumbled upon who has some great gardening videos, including her trellising with hog panels. Check out “Roots and Refuge.”

  5. As we garden we begin to understand the symbiotic nature of life. Aged cow manure, egg shells from our healthy chickens, the straw from poultry houses, etc. all can be composted and ultimately create beautiful soil. Even the most simple morning routine – a cup of coffee – has some implication for the garden. I keep a handmade glazed pottery bowl (with lid) on my kitchen counter. Coffee grounds go there and get dumped into the garden weekly.

    A few years ago I salvaged a scraggly half-dead 10 year old rose bush by feeding it used coffee grounds and giving it a little extra water every day for a few months. That plant now rewards me with a stunning profusion of roses each June/July. The pale pink rose petals will be sugared this summer to provide a homemade sweet little adornment for special desserts or tea scones.

    Also, new gardeners might not realize that peat moss will lower pH, just as wood ash will raise pH. I am personally not a fan of peat moss. It’s not sustainable, requires a ton of water to moisten it once it dries out, and it decomposes quickly. But perhaps if you need to dedicate a spot in your garden to plants needing a lower pH, it could be worthwhile?

    Building good soil is not an overnight project. It takes time. And even when you think you have a plan, it can go sideways. I had to shake my head yesterday as I watched our bull play “king of the mountain” on an aged pile of manure I was hoping to use soon. He certainly can make a mess of an otherwise neat pile of useful material…

    1. Ah,

      I know all about bull antics. I love ’em. Our Bull “Sh” has free range of the ranch. All objects must be put away or they will become his toys. He found our burn barrel, one time, and literally butted it 800 yards across meadows and through the forest until it was stopped up against our boundary fence. Silly boys. 😉

  6. St. Funogas,

    I knew that urine has nitrogen, but I didn’t know that it has potassium and phosphorous as well. Maybe that means I don’t need to buy tomato fertilizer anymore. That would save some money. I am working on my garden today, so your tips are well timed. Thank you for writing this article!

    1. Hi MJ, tomato fertilizer is a good subject to research and tomatoes are one crop that can actually do poorly on too much nitrogen. They can end up making a lot of leaves and branches and not very many tomatoes. It definitely makes good tomato starter though.

      The N-P-K values in human urine average 11:2:4 so it’s quite high in nitrogen. Most commercial tomato fertilizer formulas tend to be low on nitrogen on higher on P and K, though there are exceptions.

      With that said, the urine-on-tomatoes makes a fun experiment but not sure if it would be a good season-long fertilizer regimen.

      Here’s a little more detail on urine as fertilizer but there are hundreds of other articles as well. It’s an interesting subject.

      Good luck on your tomatoes this year.

  7. Some areas allow you to buy seeds, herb plants and vegetable plants with food stamps if you find yourself having to receive them. Check before you go out to buy your stuff. Buy some plants and seeds instead of oreos and pop.
    For those of you put out of work by current events you will be living off your savings if you have any.

  8. It’s a very good idea to trial your seeds, potatoes and other vegetative starts but I would add to do it more then one year because some varieties are more conducive to one kind of growing conditions and the next year may be totally different. For example my best garden yield was during a drought a couple of years ago. I had boatloads of tomatoes, corn, watermelon and winter squash. The next year nada, zilch, nothing from the exact same varieties. In fact all I grew well was weeds. My squash had tons of squash bugs and downy mildew. My corn was stunted because the weeds were competing for the nutrients and all the rain made them grow like weeds. My tomatoes had mildew, the watermelon never pollinated or it rotted before fully growing. It was very discouraging. If I had depended on the seeds from the drought to grow food during the “flood” of rain we normally get I wouldn’t have had anything to eat. Thankfully I had the grocery store to fall back on. So trial your seeds but maybe save a backup variety or trial seeds for several years before they become your only source – one is none and two is one gardening philosophy. Like St. Funogas says you need to get started on this sooner rather than later!

    1. Hey CD, lots of good comments. My own first-year experience at my homestead was very similar. After the first year, the pests which are particular to those crops all discover your garden and then new strategies have to be developed. I’ve never come close to getting another tomato crop as excellent as that first one and I’ve been trialing one variety after another, looking for one or two that will do well with my pests and diseases.

      The important thing is to not give up. Sometimes we even discover the good stuff by accident. Last year for some reason the squash were not doing so well even though I was keeping up with smashing squash bug eggs before they hatched. Then I had an issue in mid July and had to completely abandon the garden and bees for two months. In September, I discovered that even though all the squash in the squash patch were history and had produced nothing, the few volunteers that were scattered throughout the garden had produced the most beautiful crop of butternut squash you can imagine. I harvested the largest crop, by both individual size and total weight, of squash I have ever harvested for the winter. This year, I’m not even planting a squash patch, just some “volunteers” scattered here and there among the other plants in the garden. They’ll be lounging with the loofahs and zoning with the zinnias and I’m really curious to see how it’s going to turn out. And that’s just a big part of what keeps gardening so exciting for me, other than the fact that I get to eat it all when I’m done playing around and having my fun. 🙂

  9. St Funogas and Wise Girl, thank you both for the suggestions and links! Very interesting to see what other’s have done so you can glean tips and ideas. Kindest regards

  10. Only tried it one year, but planting radishes plentifully among the vining plants, (squash, melons, pumpkins), stopped all ,or almost all, or the squash bugs. No need for dusting.

    1. Radish and carrots around tomatoes reduce weeds to almost none.
      Before planting test the soil-what is lacking and plan amendments(my heavy clay soil took years of peat,manure,compost,sand etc to loosen up and regular blood,bone,fish meal and ph adjustment every year)
      Can’t recommend a compost barrel enough,all vegetable scraps go in is covered by green or dry cover(grass clippings or leaves) to keep pests down,when it rains hard undrowned worms get a great place to live/work and you know what is in your compost.
      Don’t forget to rotate planting,beans fix nitrogen in the soil etc.

  11. Excellent article by St. Funogas. Gardening~Farming takes years of learning and experimenting; a lifetime of surprises. … The US Army can teach pistol and rifle shooting in just a few weeks. … Practice, practice, practice; improves the learned shooting skills. Gardening~Farming is a lifetime of learning.

    From the article, St. Funogas: “Garlic is a super easy crop to grow every place I have ever lived…”
    From experience and the Internet: Eating raw garlic will act as a natural mosquito repellent. Healthier than smoking tobacco or putting DEET on your skin. Though, I’ll often use DEET too on my clothes, and the 360* brim on my hat.

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