Garden Lessons – Part 1, by Greenthumb in the West

There is an old saying:

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is today.”

We had this proverb in mind when we bought our retreat property five years ago, and started work on the garden and orchard immediately, even before we started on the house. The past five years have been a steep learning curve of lessons in taking raw land to (semi!)-productive land. We have had the blessing of not needing to rely on our garden for sustenance during this time.

I wanted to pass on what we’ve learned and purchased along the way in the hope you can benefit during this time of plenty when mistakes and lessons learned are not life-threatening. If you think the #10 can of magic survival seeds that you stored will just need to be sprinkled in the dirt for instant food, you are mistaken.

For some background, we were not new to gardening. In our hometown, there is a community garden named after my grandmother. We moved from a warmer climate where we had numerous citrus and avocado trees, as well as yearly vegetable gardens. My grandmother and mother ran a mail-order iris business in the pre-Internet days. I tell you this so you understand we had fair reason to believe we knew what we were doing. Like many others reading this, to us, a garden and orchard are a cornerstone of our long-term plan for success and survival — both every day and post-SHTF. Here, in no particular order, are some of the lessons we learned:

One of the most important things is to learn and write down your frost dates, both latest and earliest, as well as your garden climate zone. Our latest frost date is May 27th. Our earliest is October 11th. We are around 5,200-foot elevation. After having two gardens freeze in two years from Memorial Day weekend frosts, we learned our lesson and now respect this. Both of those years, the weather was perfect, skies were blue, and days were warm. The cottonwoods on the nearby creek had greened out, which was a long time local guide to planting dates. We were wrong, and it cost us another few days of work, seed, and plants. Luckily we had all to spare.

Now, we are more strategic about planting. Some plants are more frost resistant than others. Those go in before the frost dates, usually mid to late March. All the rest wait till after the frost date.

Keep in mind, your micro-climate will be unique depending on exposure and the layout of your property. Our garden and orchard are fairly exposed to maximize sunlight. The trade-off for the sun exposure is that frost hits us hard. Our nearest neighbor keeps a smaller, more protected garden that’s sheltered fairly well between two buildings. He has weathered some frosts much better than we did. Keep this in mind when deciding where to plant.

That works for seasonal plantings and frost, but what about trees? We use dormancy spray if the winter is mild to keep trees from budding out too early. We have had success with tiki torches and freeze cloth protecting plants during freezes. Smudge pots would work also, on a different scale. Keep in mind the fuel needs for both of these options and the likelihood they will be in short supply when the balloon goes up. Battery-powered incandescent lights at the base of the trees, or strings of Christmas lights can have the same effect, especially if under a freeze cloth or frost blanket but obviously need electricity to work. Invest in freeze cloth while you can if your climate may need it, along with stakes to keep the cloth off of trees. Get the cloth large enough to reach the ground.

We respected frost dates last year. We got the early budding and blooming trees through a few frosts in the spring. All was going well. We had some great early harvests of numerous plants. At the end of July, we got hit by a freak hail storm. IN JULY! These were shooter-marble sized hail, and it looked like snow in the creek bed. The vegetable garden was destroyed. It looked like someone took a baseball bat to every plant then stripped the leaves. The potatoes survived, along with some zucchini. That was pretty much it of the annual plants.

The moral of that story was the best-made plans of mice and men often go awry. You can do everything correctly and yet still have disastrous results. Our food storage had always been planned at being enough for a year, with the idea that in that time frame we would be able to rely on it while we transitioned to self-sufficiency and stretch the food storage as needed. After the late hail, we upped our food storage to two years. Yes, it cost more money and space, but the realization a year may not be enough slapped us in the face. The only adjustment was to make sure FIFO rule was obeyed so nothing was wasted.

We have had to deal with numerous garden pests. The interesting part has been they have changed over timed.

Deer and Elk- For them, we fenced the orchard and garden with two sections of 4’ hog fencing, for an 8’ total height. We put smaller grid hardware cloth along the bottom foot of the fence and the gate, and extended it out (Picture an L) from the fence then staked the horizontal side of the L down to help keep out smaller pests like rabbits. We have had zero elk or deer get in the garden or over the fence. When we built the gate, we built it wide enough to fit a truck/tractor through which has come in handy numerous times.

Controlling Bugs

We have had good luck with Permerthrin, Sevin pesticide, and diatomaceous earth (which is handy for your chickens as well) for various pests. Arbico Organics out of Tucson, Arizona sells a wide variety of natural products for whatever pests you are having problems with. We usually grab a few egg sacs of praying mantis, ladybugs, and assassin bugs. The garden pest insects have been under control with this combination. The bugs we have dealt with have not been consistent from year to year. We dealt with squash bugs and white grub larvae this past year for the first time. We are now stocked up and read up to prevent and deal with this in the future. Between the two we lost some potatoes and squash. Luckily it was not what we were relying on it eat. Learn what you need now, and buy control options in bulk so you have it.

Controlling Birds

Outside of slingshots and BB guns, strips of mylar tied to the trees long enough to blow and flash in the wind have helped some, along with a fake owl on a fence post. Even with those measures, we usually end up putting out bird netting to keep the birds away, mainly on the tomatoes, grapes, and berries. If we are really careful, we are able to get a second season out of bird netting but in general they have been one-time use. Stock up in bulk now.

Controlling Ground squirrels and Rats

We didn’t have any issues with squirrels or rats the first three years. The fourth year, as the garden grew in size, both came out in force. Through live traps, snap/kill traps, and rat poison, we got it under control, but only after we had lost numerous melons and squash. We had good success with the tomcat brand rat poison in the marble size green granules. We put a few at the base of each plant on a routine basis until they stopped disappearing. It took about five days for us. The granules come in bulk in hard plastic buckets. We had live traps and snap traps already but we had to make the 2-hour trip (each way!) to the nearest town to get the poison last year. We now keep a few buckets on hand to rotate. Be aware your pets will eat this and it is toxic to them. Keep them out of the garden while treating with this.

Controlling Two legged pests

In a SHTF scenario, the possibility of garden/crop theft goes way up. Out of sight, out of mind if possible. Depending on the layout of your land, neighbors, roads, size of the garden, etc, you may not be able to hide your garden and crops from people passing by. The next best thing is to position the garden somewhere you can keep an eye on it. Don’t forget that in the age of Google Earth, hiding a garden is extremely difficult.

Plan to get a soil test. It is well worth the $20-40 and will help steer what long term amendments you put in your soil to get the conditions right. Even if you aren’t ready to plant the garden, get the test now while you can and labs are still running. Then put the needed amendments aside. It will come in handy later. There are also pH meters and home test kits. (I have heard you can tell generally if your soil is acidic or basic by making a solution of soil and water in two bowls. Add some vinegar to one and baking soda to the other. If the bowl you added the vinegar to reacts, your soil is alkaline. If the bowl with the baking soda reacts, your soil is acidic. I have not tried this but if you are coming late to the game may work.)

Our ground is good dark soil, but it is hard to turn over and has some clay. We solved this by turning up the top layer of dirt and then putting a raised bed on top of it. We usually used 2”x12”s and 2”x8”s, but depending on what was left over from other projects have used corrugated metal siding and large tires. We have had good luck with 4’x8’ bed-size as far as being enough room to plant and grow while still being able to reach everything. There are many plans online if you search for raised bed ideas, from simple to elaborate.

Even with raised beds, we didn’t give up on the ground. It has helped us to have a long horizon for the garden, and time. We started on a 20’ x 20’ patch of ground five years ago. We started with clearing it down to bare dirt, then turned the soil. After adding amendments to get the pH correct, we started adding more manure and compost. We tilled in old straw from other projects. It has taken five years and more manure and compost each year, but the soil is finally great garden soil. You can dig it with your hands and the plants love it. There is no way we could have done that in a year, much less a month or two. By having a longer time frame and not having to rely on it for food immediately, we were able to chip away at it and it has paid off. We made a 4×4 foot frame from scrap wood and hardware cloth to help sift out rocks and improve the soil as well.

We planted fruit trees in the 5-gallon size, trying to save cost. Cherries, apples, peaches, pears, apricots, you name it. All of the trees are continuing to grow and bud and blossom. Last year, we got a handful of cherries, a small peach, and an apple. That was it. Trees take time. You have time to wait now. You may not always have time to wait. Do not delay getting longer-term plants in.

(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 2.)


  1. Great start for an article; looking forward to next part.

    We have a problem with our fruit trees and bushes budding out during a week or so of warm weather in Jan or Feb; then the killer frost comes in March. Have never used dormancy spray so would appreciate any advice or recommended brands.

    1. Thanks for reading! We use hi yield dormant spray. It’s an oil based spray designed to help kill overwintering bugs. You spray after pruning and before budding. The design is more pest control based but we have found it seems to help with early budding. Heavy mulch at the start of winter has also helped maintain temps and reduce budding. Once it starts though, we switch to frost cloth and protection mode.

    2. We use hi yield brand dormant spray. It’s an oil based spray designed to prevent bugs during the winter. It’s applied after pruning and before budding. It’s designed for pest control but we find it seems to help buffer those warm days a bit and reduces early budding. Heavy mulch at the start of winter helps insulate the roots (and keep the cold in from my understanding) . Once they start to bud, we switch to protection mode with freeze cloth, etc.

  2. Your statement about those who think they can just sprinkle a bunch of seeds on the ground really hit home, and is so very true. Anyone who is planning to ‘bug out’ with their survival stash of heirloom seeds has a very intense wake up call coming. Murphy’s law is waiting to meet you.

    After four summers planting my garden here in the Inland Empire, including a four month master gardener class at the local university extension office, I can say with confidence that at this point I would starve if I had to rely on my own food production. So at least I know that much.

    Every year was a different story; first year the cabbage could have won a blue ribbon, next year it was attacked by insects. My second year there was a summer hailstorm but fortunately I had tarps close at hand and was able to quickly cover most of my rows with minimal damage. But the helpless feeling of the sudden disaster is all too clear in my mind still. I remember consoling myself with the thought that if I lost everything I could still buy produce at the market, followed quickly by the realization of what a life threatening catastrophe it would be if this were my only food source and there were no market available to buy from. It made me think of pictures of people thrashing away at hordes of grasshoppers and locusts, knowing the loss of their crops meant starvation ahead. It truly gives a whole different perspective.

    One thing that can help immensely is to make friends with local people who have been gardening for a couple of decades in the same area where you live. You can learn a lot from their experience. But nothing can replace learning it the hard way.

    1. Well, with the locusts coming out of their 17 yr. hibernation this year, (in my area of the states), no planting until they’re gone. No point! Maybe some indoor planting?

      1. I’ve read that cicadas taste like shrimp, and apparently some people substitute them for shrimp in certain recipes.
        No, not for me, but just throwing that out there in case…well, you could be starving and they’ll be millions of them soon

        Let us know if you try them.

        Semper Fi

      2. Update! It’s a cicada invasion, not locusts! It’ll be noisy for about 6 wks. My mistake. Don’t know if they taste like shrimp? Hopefully, I won’t have to find out. : )

    2. I word to the wise, friends.

      I normally use Johnny’s Seeds, however there are seed shortages due to the huge demand and they are only supplying to commercial growers, as you likely know!

      I think people are panic-buying based on last year and seed companies are struggling to keep up with orders, in some cases due to actual shortages, but mostly due to labor. Johnnys has actually shut down all orders for home gardeners.

      You seed savers are ahead of the game. Everybody, else, you do well to order early and order often. Best to seek companies that are local. Climate makes a difference.

      Carry on

      1. My family were always, Burpee people, for the seeds; had nothing to do with beer.

        Burpee still has many Heirloom seeds for sale. I happen to like the looks of this batch: [Society Gals would use it for a table decoration.] =
        Squash, Winter, Lakota. HEIRLOOM. Lakota is as colorful as an Indian blanket with the fine baking quality of Hubbard. … Plant breeders have recreated a stunning winter squash once prized by the Sioux, but long lost to cultivation. Fine-grained orange flesh is sweet and nutty. Mature fruits are 8″ x 9″ and weigh 5-7 lbs.

        White Heirloom Corn is available too. The ‘Seed Rush’ might be by ‘Greenhorns’ buying the hybrid seeds. Who knows?

        Surely, with mumbling Joe, the economy will take a slide downhill. … I’m one of the people, that believes the US economy is ~often throttled on purpose.
        …….. >[ We know good weather, inexpensive energy, less regulation, lower taxes, a large group of honest citizens willing to work, = will result in a prosperous country. For individuals, God’s Grace plays a part too.]

      2. I ordered some from the Red Fox company that you recommended the other day. Time to pull the canister out of the fridge and plant those, and put a new sealed package in cold storage for longer term. Also ordered some from Seed Savers and from Baker Creek, for planting now if they come in time. It is hard to decide what to get since I don’t know how long we will live in this zone… I don’t want to go nuts and hoard tons of seeds for later, that other gardeners could be planting NOW. But as a novice gardener I certainly can’t count on being good at saving seeds for following years right off the bat either. Tons of good advice here on these pages, but some things just gotta be learnt by experience…

  3. I agree, great article. You point out the very real parts of gardening. If I had a couple of dollars for every time I had someone tell me, “when it gets bad, I’ll just throw some seeds in the ground and grow my own food”, I’d have a chunk of change. I used to try and tell them it’s not that simple, but people never want to hear the hard answers. So I just mind my own business.

    1. I had excellent results with wicking tubs last year. Easy to put together and care for. Everything to put them together is still readily available. I had 10 of them going and was able to grow a few different vegetables together in each one. Also, I had potato and onion buckets.

      Mr. Leon on Youtube walks you through the idea behind them and how to make them. My tubs are still in great shape and should last several more years. I was very happy with the results! I told several friends and they saw the results but made no attempt to try it, as you said, now I just mind my own business.

      1. When you move to a new area, the first thing you should do is look around for gardens and talk to the people who own them. Many of them have gardened for years and can provide a lot of information that you need. We keep two years of basic commodities that can handle long range storage on hand, along with freeze dried food we purchase.
        Mother nature is mother nature, and you will be subject to it no matter what you do. The climate change folks are blaming it on the climate, but I find that many of the trends and changes we are seeing at the moment occurred in either 20 or 40 year cycles. That includes droughts that I have experienced and even other droughts my parents and grandparents suffered through including the Great Depression. Their advice was to develop water resources and understand how to recognize wild foods that are available in your area.
        Learning your area and environment is the most important thing to know in order to succeed in gardening or any other enterprise.
        As to trees I have seeds from both oaks and maples that come up in my garden every spring. I transplant them to a woodlot, or give them away to others who will plant them.

        Climate change: Primary cause is deforestation, and the primary answer is reforestation on land that has been contaminated and can no longer be used or land that is not in agricultural production. Plant trees without using government programs. Government programs are more detrimental to the climate than anything else. I am not an environmentalist who sits in an office all week and then goes out and destroys someone else’s way of life and source of income. I am a conservationist who works every day to keep my land in balance so that it can function effectively. Balance is the essence of life.
        Cattle lick comes in plastic barrels — you can probably find them at a local cattle ranch for just a dollar or two, or often the rancher will let you have them for free. They make excellent planters.

  4. We gardened in Wyoming at 5000 feet, which was the rolling prairie elevation next to the mountains.

    One year I won best garden in our county fair, based upon entering my 5 best types of vegetables.

    We suffered hail, early and late frosts, etc. We bought a lot of what we fed the six of us. We couldn’t feed ourselves on what we grew.

    I’m convinced if you want to grow your own, you need chickens integrated into the plan for insect control, while preventing the chickens from destroying your plants.

    I’m also convinced of the need for a very large, durable greenhouse. With something like glass or rigid polycarbonate rather than stretchable film.

    Film greenhouses are fantastic but too susceptible to hail, heavy snow, 100mph winds, and now we have the coming ice age threat of derecho.

    God Bless

    1. This is a link about Chinese greenhouses. The ideas were/are used by other people living in cold climates. A lot of people in the world still ~absolutely have to depend on the food they grow.

      The link is just offered to let people start a search. [A number of pictures in the article for understanding. … motherearthnews(dot)com/organic-gardening/chinese-greenhouses-for-winter-gardening

      “Typical glass greenhouses require massive inputs of energy to grow crops out of season. That’s because glass, even if it’s triple-glazed, loses much more heat than an insulated wall. But with some thoughtful design, growing fruits and vegetables out of season can be accomplished by using and storing the energy from the sun.”

      “Contrary to its fully glazed counterpart, a passive solar greenhouse is designed to retain as much warmth as possible using thermal mass and insulation. These features make it possible to grow crops year-round with solar energy alone, even when it’s freezing outside, in regions where doing so would otherwise be impossible without large energy inputs. Solar greenhouses are especially successful in China, where many thousands of such structures have been built in recent decades.”

      “The quest to grow warmth-loving crops in temperate regions initially didn’t involve any glass at all. In northwestern Europe, gardeners planted Mediterranean crops close to specially built walls with high thermal mass. These walls created a microclimate that could be 14 to 22 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the surrounding outside temperatures (learn more at Low-Tech Magazine). Later, greenhouses built against these walls further improved yields from solar energy alone. It was only at the very end of the 19th century that the greenhouse turned into a fully glazed and artificially heated structure where heat is rapidly lost — a far cry from the technology it evolved from.”

      “The oil crisis in the 1970s prompted a renewed interest in the passive solar greenhouse. However, the attention quickly faded when energy prices came down again, and the all-glass greenhouse remained the horticultural workhorse in many parts of the world. The Chinese, on the other hand, have built nearly 2 million acres of passive solar greenhouses during the past three decades.”
      An unspoken concept in the article is about NOT very much USA money reaches the Chinese Worker. The vast majority of workers in China could be described as economic slave laborers. … Just a small group of people in China and the world have gained immense wealth, sending American Jobs and Industry to China. (A relatively small group of people will profit immensely with our new President.)

      BUT, for survival purposes, and gardening enthusiasts, the article is a starting point to understanding the old-time, greenhouses.

  5. So true! Our last frost date is May 15th and first frost is sometime in September – a very short growing season at 4,000′ elevation. My family here built a large all season greenhouse over a year ago at a substantial cost. It had to withstand 6′ of snow and high winds. The water pump is always freezing even though the line is at a depth of 6′, it’s a small section that comes out of the pond into the pump house that’s a dilemma.

    I’ve tried container gardening for two years now. The squirrels ate all the tomatoes before they were ripe. By the time easy to grow zucchini was near getting ready, boom, hard frost. Nowhere on my property, because I live in the forest trees, is there full sun for enough hours. I may try raised beds, but honestly I think it’s going to be a huge waste of resources due to short season and lack of enough sun. There are a few families with greenhouses that have been growing for a long time here, so I’m going to purchase their produce. My other option is artificial lighting and that also seems like a huge waste of resources, and it’s not a sustainable option.

    All that to say, moving into the Northwest, while a safe and conservative area for the most part, is a very challenging growing environment. Before one gives up “southern comforts”, mainly a long growing season, think about how hard it is to grow in snow country.

    1. SaraSue my last Frost date is May 25 and my first Frost date is is September 12. We’re at 3400’ elevation and live on a forested mountain. I believe, from some of your comments I’m 2-4 hours drive south of you in Idaho. We don’t have squirrels so much as chipmunks and it would take 30 to feed a grown man,lol, they are so small. Also we have Colombian ground squirrels and they are devastating to a garden. They look like hamsters on steroids.
      I agree, it’s tougher to get a harvest here but I wouldn’t live anywhere else.
      Have y’all considered cutting your trees back from the house a bit so you can have more sunlight?

  6. “The squirrels ate all the tomatoes”, so no stewed tomatoes but how about stewed squirrel? Check with your local co-op extension they should be able to provide some advice and may even have a master gardener available for additional help.

    1. LOL. I’ve never had squirrel and I hope to never. We got so many tomatoes in the family greenhouse that we still have tons of gallon bags in the freezers waiting for me to can up for the family! Things that grew great in the greenhouse were lettuce, kale, cucumbers, and tomatoes. The majority of the produce goes to the farm store for sale to the local community. But, we were overrun with tomatoes (great problem to have) and they ripened so fast we couldn’t sell them fast enough, so a lot went into the freezer whole. When I can them, I don’t let them completely defrost so that I can easily cut them up into cubes, or they go to mush quickly.

      1. You must try squirrel fried in an iron skillet. And make gravy to go with it.
        I’ve eaten squirrels my entire life, still do. Wire cage traps baited with a little peanut butter or any type of nuts will thin them out. It will save your garden. And in my case, keep the dogs from barking.
        When I was still running a small trap line I would catch a great number of red fox squirrels as well as greys in cage traps set for raccoons. Never considered that a loss, but a win as I put them in the skillet or freezer.
        For those who have raccoon problems, you can enjoy a good meal there while eliminating that pesky problem. Have to cook the raccoons properly though. My wife barbecues them and they are delicious.
        Good luck with the garden.

        Semper Fi

          1. That’s correct. We used to eat wild rabbits quite often but there’s not as many around today.
            In fact, we like squirrel more.
            Also, we cook mostly with iron cookware.

            Semper Fi

        1. Batteau, would love your wife’s recipe/technique on BBQ the raccoons! If I BBQ enough of them, maybe I could actually grow corn!!!!! LOL

          I’ve eaten squirrel before and really enjoy it (although need several to really make a meal).

          Maybe some folks could post recipes for critters that really bother our gardens/poultry. Maybe recipes for raccoons, possums, I’ve even heard of eating armadillo before but I don’t think I would try it first! (Supposedly they carry leprosy)

      2. We found freezing tomatoes makes peeling them easier when they partially thaw. That or cutting them in two and running the flesh side on a grater down to the skin

  7. Sounds like you are in my neck of the woods! Arbico (up on Oracle in that industrial complex) has some great products for natural pest control. One suggestion to get away from all of the poison for pests-at least packrats…. try RatX. It’s all natural consisting of only corn gluten meal, salt and sorbitol. The area of my land where the future garden will be is very close to the existing well, and I don’t want to contaminate the groundwater. The packrats eat it for the sweet taste and apparently the salt makes their stomachs explode. Eight or ten pellets dropped into each of their holes does the trick. My game cameras used to have a multitude of them running around all night. Now, I’ll see one or maybe two each week in the motion activated IR camera photos. Also, if a larger animal-or birds- eats the dead (or dying) packrats, it doesn’t affect them. The local cats, coyotes and one badger (seriously) keep the remaining population down. Clearing the property of their nests has helped discourage their population growth as well. That has taken months, as the land was unused for almost forty years. Just a thought.

  8. I absolutely agree that knowing your frost dates and grow zone is critical. I’ve lost many a plant by guessing or hoping for the best! I’ve been growing in the Pacific Northwest for many years and still I feel like I have so much to learn. Growing your own seedlings rather than depending on nursery stock is becoming more critical as more folks get into gardening. Planning when to start your seeds, having the proper growing conditions such as proper lightening etc is where I’ve been concentrating this year. I invested is a few more grow lights and heat mats in preparation for this year and ordered my seeds early.

    I’ll wait for the next part of your article as I am hoping you might provide a list of the resources or folks you use to gather growing information.

    1. I covered some aspects of who we talk to and gained knowledge from in the next parts. Carla Emery’s encyclopedia of country living, a sunset western garden book and some of the annual editions or vegetable editions of mother Earth news has been helpful for us. I strongly recommend a gardening section for your library.I call seed companies on a regular basis when I have questions about stuff. Theyre surprisingly helpful, along with local nursery’s.
      We don’t have a local nursery but we found one that is a very similar climate and growing season a few hours away and they’ve been helpful as well.

      We have not got into grow lights yet as we get enough sun early in the year but we have been toying with that idea. Love to read an article on it

  9. Short on seeds?

    Seed Savers Exchange

    is a great resource with hundreds of seed producers listed across the US you can order from.

    Wheatley Fisher recommends.

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